CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ohio has never been ground zero in the debate over immigration.
But when a Republican presidential field led by Donald Trump arrives here next week for its first debate, a case in neighboring Lake County could be a major flashpoint.
Officials say Juan Emmanuel Razo, 35, shot and killed Margaret Kostelnik in her Concord Township home Monday and attempted to rape a 14-year-old girl at nearby Helen Wyman Park. Razo also is accused of attempted murder related to the shooting of another woman.
During a traffic stop less than three weeks earlier, sheriff’s deputies learned that Razo was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, a detective said at a Tuesday court hearing. Details of why Razo was stopped aren’t clear. Razo was not arrested then. He has lived in the country for five years and had no criminal history locally.
Regardless, the scenario presents a told-you-so moment for the most vocal critics of President Barack Obama and U.S. immigration policy. And it feeds a broad-brush notion – perpetuated by Trump from the moment he stormed into the race last month – that undocumented immigrants are a threat not only to the economy but also to public safety.
Specifically, Trump has equated Mexican immigrants with rapists.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said at his June 16 campaign kickoff. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump has not backed down from these and other controversial remarks. But as his rivals criticize, Trump’s poll numbers climb. This is partly attributable to Trump’s nearly universal name recognition in a field of 16 candidates of varying familiarity.
It also stands to reason Trump has tapped into a stream of voter angst in ways others have resisted. How deep this stream runs isn’t exactly clear. Trump, true to his own self-promotional style, sees himself as the leader of a “silent majority.”
Given Trump’s rhetoric, other GOP hardliners on immigration seem tame by comparison.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an upper-tier presidential candidate, has acknowledged that he has changed his position. Once in favor of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he recently suggested limits on legal immigration.
Another Republican hopeful, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, recently grilled the Immigration and Customs Enforcement director on how many “criminal illegal aliens” the federal government has released without deportation.
Other GOP candidates for president are open to gentler immigration reforms.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor whose wife was born in Mexico, has spoken of the moral obligations, economic opportunities and political benefitssurrounding a path to citizenship. He also has been among Trump’s biggest critics.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has straddled the fence. He has said he does not favor citizenship for undocumented immigrants but would not rule it out as president.
“If they are criminals, they go to jail or they are deported,” he said at a recent town hall forum in Barrington, New Hampshire. “If they’re living next to us, and they’re going to church with us, and they’re good people, well, then we’re not going to throw them out. I’m not in favor of getting rid of them. But they’re going to have to pay a penalty.”
These positions are seen as risky for Bush and for Kasich in a Republican primary campaign where candidates are expected to rally the conservative base. See, for example, how another contender, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, backed away from a sweeping immigration reform push and now talks about addressing the issue incrementally.
The general election is another story. Republican leaders talked in earnest after their 2012 loss about bringing new voters, Hispanics in particular, into the GOP fold.
Trump is unfazed.
To further amplify the wedge issue that has become his calling card, he traveled last week to the border town of Laredo, Texas, with about 100 reporters in tow.
“In certain sections, you have to have a wall,” Trump said, according to media accounts.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture Trump, during his visit to Northeast Ohio for next week’s debate, staging a similar publicity stunt at Helen Wyman Park.