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WASHINGTON — This week could turn out to be pivotal for the Trump White House as both major parties get ready for midterm congressional elections in November.
President Donald Trump’s decision to reverse a policy of separating families coming across the U.S. southern border came in the wake of a political firestorm that fired up opposition Democrats and alarmed even some Republicans. At the very least, it likely set the stage for immigration to be a key issue in November.
Trump was in combat mode Wednesday during a political rally in Duluth, Minnesota, where he vowed to make immigration a central focus in the upcoming congressional campaign.
“If you want to create a humane, lawful system of immigration then you need to retire the Democrats and elect Republicans to finally secure our borders,” Trump said to an enthusiastic crowd, some chanting, “Build the wall!”
Just hours earlier, the president reversed his controversial policy of separating children from their parents by signing an executive order in the White House.
“We are going to have strong, very strong, borders. But we are going to keep the families together,” he said.
Outcry over separation
Trump decided to back away from the controversial policy of separating families after an outcry from around the country that included protests in several states, including Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Also driving the outrage was a recording of children crying out for their parents released by the investigative journalist group ProPublica.
The separation policy drew condemnation from Republicans including former first lady Laura Bush and a host of Democrats.
“We should be able to agree that we will not keep kids in child internment camps indefinitely and hidden away from public view,” said Maryland Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings. “What country is that? This is the United States of America!”
Advocates for a tough border policy sided with the president including Art Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies. He cited a recent upsurge in attempted border crossings.
“That large influx of individuals would suggest that we are starting to creep back up the numbers we saw during the Obama administration,” Arthur told VOA via Skype. “And the Trump administration needed to take action to respond, and this is an appropriate response.”
But many religious leaders were critical, including Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities for Archdiocese of New York, who also spoke via Skype.
“To use the means of separating a child from his or her mother just is completely unacceptable for us as Americans,” he said.
The immediate political fallout could be damaging for the president, especially with the midterms coming up later this year.
“It is a public relations disaster area for the Trump administration, and just about everybody but Donald Trump and his very strongly anti-immigration aides seem to realize that,” said University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato.
Sabato also told VOA via Skype that Trump’s tough stance is also aimed at shoring up his political base for the midterms.
“Of course, they are focusing on their base. They are trying to make sure that they are going to show up and vote and it could make some difference in close midterm elections.”
Polls pro and con
Trump’s poll numbers have improved of late, but that was before the firestorm over separating families at the border.
Recent polls by Quinnipiac University and the Associated Press showed a majority of Americans approved of his outreach to North Korea to defuse the nuclear threat.
But surveys by Quinnipiac and CNN also found Americans opposed his child separation policy by margins of 2 to 1.
There is also fresh evidence that Trump is firing up both political parties in the run-up to the midterm voting. The Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of voters who intend to vote for Democrats in November are more enthusiastic than usual.
But the survey also found that 50 percent of those who intend to support Republicans are also more enthusiastic, setting the stage for what could be a monumental get out the vote struggle for both parties come November.