FILE - This Jan. 25, 2017, file photo shows a truck driving near the Mexico-US border fence, on the Mexican side, separating the towns of Anapra, Mexico and Sunland Park, New Mexico. President Donald Trump will face many obstacles in building his “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, including how to pay for it and how to contend with unfavorable geography and the legal battles ahead. (AP Photo/Christian Torres, File) ORG XMIT: WX301

The debate over whether the U.S. should build a wall on the border with Mexico, a campaign pledge from President Donald Trump, has largely played out away from Louisiana. Not only does the state not share a border with Mexico, but its immigrant population is relatively small, and immigration policy is rarely crafted at the State Capitol.

However, the two Republicans running for governor this year are delivering a hard-line immigration message as the race kicks into a higher gear, clamoring to “build the wall” and labeling New Orleans a “sanctuary city.” One, businessman Eddie Rispone, has made immigration a key part of his introduction to voters in a TV advertising blitz that hit the airwaves in recent days, as well as in stump speeches.

The messages are practically a carbon copy of the rhetoric used by Trump, and that is by design.

“I stand with President Trump on immigration,” Rispone says in his latest TV ad, which launched Friday. “The media says that’s racist, what a bunch of politically correct nonsense.”

Congressman Ralph Abraham, the other GOP candidate running to unseat Edwards, has made similar statements, fundraising off a pledge to “build the wall” and lauding East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux’s decision to renew an agreement with federal immigration authorities to allow deputies to check the citizenship status of people booked into the parish jail.

Both candidates are dredging up issues that have dominated the national news cycle. And they’re trying to out-Trump each other as a way to prove to voters their loyalty to the president in a state Trump won by a 58% to 38% margin in 2016. Rispone brags in his first TV ad about putting a Trump bumper sticker on his truck in 2016, and decried “liberal lunatics.” He said he supports the border wall “110%.”

“Oftentimes, Republican candidates are competing with each other over who is really the most loyal Trump supporter,” said Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University. “‘I’m more Trumpian than you are.’ That seems to be the mantra.”

And while immigration has not been a major policy issue in Louisiana, Samuels points out Trump has had success pitching his wall and anti-immigration policies in other non-border states with relatively small immigrant populations.

A rare issue

Most — about 61% — of the 10.7 million people who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas live in 20 major metro areas, according to the Pew Research Center. None of those cities are in Louisiana. 

The Rispone and Abraham campaigns have lambasted New Orleans as a so-called “sanctuary city” that flouts federal immigration laws. But the Trump administration’s own Department of Justice told former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration in November 2017 that it was not a sanctuary city because the city’s police were in compliance with federal laws.

That followed a debate over whether the city was a “sanctuary” for unauthorized immigrants amid threats by the Trump administration to withhold federal funding. The Trump administration has made clear it still would like New Orleans officials to do more to identify and report people in the country illegally to immigration authorities.

The Rispone campaign points to the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank, which still labels New Orleans as a sanctuary city, mainly because of its policies of honoring detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only in limited cases.

But Susan Weishar, policy and research fellow at Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute, says the policies in New Orleans are in line with federal law. ICE detainer requests are not legally binding, she notes, and immigrants who commit crimes in New Orleans are still held accountable. She said the rhetoric from the Republicans is an effort to "create fear" about something that is not a major problem in Louisiana. 

The “sanctuary city” label has been used to imply New Orleans does not follow the law, Weishar said, which is a misunderstanding of “basic public policy.”

New Orleans police have a federally mandated consent decree that governs its policies and bars them from asking about immigration status.

“There is little to zero role governors play in immigration,” she said. “It’s very important candidates for the office of governor understand that.”

Weishar and other immigrant advocates also point to the role immigrants played in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Baton Rouge after the 2016 floods.

Louisiana has 70,000 unauthorized immigrants, comprising just 1.5% of the state’s population, according to data from the Pew Research Center, less than half the national rate.

That ranked the state 29 in the number of immigrants in the country illegally, compared with the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. They comprise only 2% of Louisiana’s labor force, compared to 4.8% nationally.

In a Pew ranking of 182 metropolitan areas across the U.S., New Orleans ranked 45th in the number of unauthorized immigrants, at 35,000, comprising 2.8% of the population.

Asked why Rispone is concerned with building a border wall in a state that doesn’t share a border with Mexico, spokesman Anthony Ramirez said it’s “partly” correct that governors in neighboring states have a limited role to play. But he said “it’s more important to note Eddie supports our president.”

“To say illegal immigration is only a crisis for (border states), that’s just flat out wrong,” Rispone said, pointing to a recent announcement by Attorney General Jeff Landry that an immigrant here illegally was arrested in Louisiana on child pornography charges.

At a recent East Baton Rouge Parish GOP event, Rispone earned applause when he discussed the immigration “crisis” and promised to “eliminate sanctuary cities.”

Rispone would support a bill similar to the one pushed by Landry in recent years that would withhold state funding to cities and law enforcement agencies with so-called “sanctuary city” policies, Ramirez said. That bill, which was labeled racially discriminatory by Democrats who opposed it, failed to win the support of the Legislature, and was criticized by Edwards.

Edwards spokesman Eric Holl, in response to barbs from the Republicans that the governor allowed New Orleans to become a “sanctuary city,” said “there are no sanctuary cities in Louisiana.”

“Gov. Edwards is working to move Louisiana forward,” Holl said. “Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone want to take Louisiana back to the failed policies of Bobby Jindal, and they are desperate to distract from that.”

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s Communications Director, Beau Tidwell, called Rispone “badly misinformed” after he ran a newspaper ad in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, where he called the city a “sanctuary city” and criticized “radical leftists” protesting ICE.

“According to the standards set by the United States Department of Justice, New Orleans is not categorized as a sanctuary city,” Tidwell said in a statement. “We are a welcoming city, however, and we embrace all of our people and residents, regardless of how they came to be here.”

Trump strategy

Immigration did not appear in TV ads in the Louisiana governor’s races in 2003, 2007 and 2011, said Michael Henderson, director of LSU’s Public Policy Research lab. It made a small appearance in 2015 as former U.S. Sen. David Vitter tried to capitalize on a right-wing fervor over Syrian refugees in his losing bid against Edwards.

But more broadly, people are increasingly thinking about national political issues when they decide who to vote for in local and statewide elections, Henderson said. He points to research by Dan Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor, who has found voters are far more interested in national politics than state and local politics than they used to be, partly a result of Americans turning toward national media outlets. 

Immigration is one of the issues voters are familiar with, he said, and it’s one of the ways Rispone can tie himself to Trump. For a candidate with little name recognition, Rispone is trying to introduce himself to voters as the Trump candidate. Abraham has made similar efforts, promoting photos of himself with the president and tagging Trump on Twitter.

“We’re already in a political era in this country where people are predisposed to thinking in these national terms,” Henderson said. “If you’re living in a place where Trump did well, it does make political sense to say ‘Hey, remember that guy you voted for? He’s just like me!’”

The phenomenon of Republicans tying themselves to Trump is evident in races across the country, said Samuels, of Southern University.

And Louisiana is an unsurprising state to see the strategy, he said. The president expected to win again in 2020 here, according to political pundits.

Unlike most other states, Louisiana has a jungle primary system in its statewide elections. All candidates appear on the same ballot in the Oct. 12 primary. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff. Edwards beat Vitter in a runoff in 2015 to win the race.

Edwards is considered a lock for the runoff, unless he wins outright in the primary. That leaves one other spot for a Republican. While Republican party officials have warned the candidates not to take shots at each other, a Super PAC affiliated with Abraham put out a digital ad recently that accused Rispone of “trying to buy this election,” and said he can’t win.

Rispone has a huge fundraising advantage over Abraham, due entirely to Rispone, who co-founded an industrial construction firm, loaning his campaign more than $10 million. Abraham only had $1.3 million in the bank as of the end of the second quarter.

Edwards is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. That has drawn the attention of the Republican Governors Association, RGA, and its Democratic counterpart, DGA, both of which are spending money in the race.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com