WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — On college campuses, as with other parts of society, students have mostly made up their minds about President Donald Trump and according to a new video by the online watchdog group Campus Reform, those views have colored their opinions about border security policies once championed by top Democrats.
Cabot Phillips, the media director for CampusReform.org, went to the American University campus in Washington D.C. during the partial government shutdown and fight over border wall funding, to get students' reactions to statements he said were made by President Trump.
Students described the statements as "divisive," "dehumanizing," "jingoistic," embedded with "racial biases," "rude" and generally discriminatory. "I just really think it's hateful speech in general," said one student.
The quotes highlighted the importance of building physical barriers on the border and stopping illegal immigration, but they were not from the president. They were made by the current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, former President Barack Obama and the former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Students disliked the statement, "Illegal Immigration is wrong, plain and simple. Until the American people are convinced we will stop future flows of illegal immigration, we will make no progress." Sen. Schumer delivered those remarks to Georgetown Law students in 2009, during the bipartisan fight for comprehensive immigration reform that was ultimately rejected by House Republicans.
Students were also upset with the tone of a 2005 remark by then-Senator Barack Obama who said, "We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented and unchecked." Less than a year later, Obama and 25 other Senate Democrats voted for the Secure Fence Act, the 2006 legislation that authorized the construction of 700 miles of barriers along the southern border.
Phillips also read a statement Hillary Clinton made on the campaign trail in 2015, where she defended her numerous votes to "spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in." She underscored, "I do think you have to control your borders."
Some of the students laughed nervously when they learned the statements were made by Democrats. Others were at a loss for words. One student smiled and noted, "That's interesting."
President Trump took office with a signature campaign promise to build a wall, a proposal that has been denounced as wasteful, unnecessary and "medieval" by his critics. But over the past decade, Democrats have supported billions of dollars in funding for physical barriers and taken a hard line against illegal immigration.
In light of these changes in the party's approach to border security and the coverage of the issue, Phillips wanted to conduct an experiment. He told Sinclair Broadcast Group, "I wanted to go out and to see if people would view the quotes differently if they thought they came from President Trump."
They did. Students had a strong, negative reaction to the mention of the president's border security policy. "Because he's such a polarizing figure and because so many young people have been told he's their worst enemy, they're going to come out and oppose it no matter what it is," Phillips said.
There are legitimate doubts about the effectiveness of a border wall absent other reforms, like additional Border Patrol agents, technology and policy changes that address immigration push and pull factors. Critics have also faulted the president for the cost of the wall, which is estimated to be $25 billion when completed.
On campuses, one concern is that students are approving or disapproving a policy based on who presents it, without weighing its actual merits. Phillips pointed to another experiment where students overwhelmingly approved of GOP tax reform ideas when they were told Sen. Bernie Sanders had proposed them.
Students are under pressure to adjust their beliefs and avoid confrontation, a pattern Phillips has documented across the more than 100 universities he has visited in the last two years. Numerous times, students who expressed liberal beliefs on camera later confessed that they are more conservative or libertarian but can't let their peers find out.
"People are so afraid of discussing anything that could be offensive, that could hurt people's feelings," Phillips said. "So many times, they don't have these hard conversations."
Those who do engage in the tough conservations often run into obstacles. Recently, Campus Reform covered a "Deck the Wall" holiday-themed party hosted by the University of Maine College Republicans. The school reached out to the UMaine Republicans after they received numerous complaints about the party which others on campus found offensive.
The event wasn't canceled, but the president of the College Republicans issued an apology on social media to those who felt the party was "unnecessarily inflammatory." He said the goal of the event was to generate a political discussion on campus on "a very pertinent topic that many may not agree on."
Part of the Leadership Institute, a conservative political nonprofit, Campus Reform was founded to cover and expose liberal biases on college campuses. The group has focused on campus free speech issues, such as protests against conservative speakers. The group has also documented incidents of professors and school administrators trying to push overt political agendas on students.
The liberal bias on college campuses has been documented in numerous studies, including a recent report by Brooklyn College professor Mitchell Langbert who found more than 78 percent of academic departments at top U.S. schools have either no Republicans, or so few as to make no difference. Other studies have found similarly that there isn't a single field in higher education with more Republican professors than Democrats.
At it's worst, the lack of diversity on most campuses has led to what Phillips described as "indoctrination." It has also contributed to students' sense that they cannot argue their conservative, libertarian or centrists views. "Because right now the education system is teaching people if you don't like an idea, you can shut it down. You can shout and scream, issue veiled threats. You can say you're offended and that's good enough to not hear out ideas," he said.
Americans are increasingly skeptical about the state of the university system. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 61 percent believe that higher education is going in the wrong direction. The concern is bipartisan but is strongest among Republicans, who believe overwhelmingly that professors are bringing their politics to the classrooms and students are being protected from potentially offensive ideas.
What Campus Reform has documented at colleges around the country is also seen in the broader debate over border security and immigration.
Moderates are increasingly squeezed out of the debate in favor of the polarized extremes on the left and right. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly denounced the president's proposed border wall as "immoral." Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wa., the chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, told the Seattle Times that Trump's infatuation with the border wall was "rooted in xenophobia and racism and an anti-immigrant bias."
On the other extreme, President Trump has claimed that Democrats "want open borders," labeled the entire party "the party of crime" and has connected the lack of a border wall to crime, gang violence and drugs. Trump has also refused to give an inch on his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, saying during a prime-time address from the Oval Office Tuesday night that he would keep the government shut down until the wall is funded.
Within that dynamic, a lot of students are confronted with a false dichotomy. "It's either you support strong border security and you're anti-immigrant, or you are pro-open borders and pro-illegal immigration," Phillips explained. "There's no middle ground." He noted that many students who believe in border security and a legal path to citizenship adopt an extreme "open borders" position to avoid being labeled intolerant.
The CampusReform.org interviews are designed to be fun to watch, but Phillips pushed back on the idea that he is making "gotcha" videos. He wants the confrontations to provoke a "lightbulb moment."
"Whatever opinion you come to, the idea is we're getting more people to break down their preconceived ideas about the other side," he explained. "I think we should all want a university system where people can debate and discuss freely without fear of retribution just for having the wrong opinion."