Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump teamed up with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for a post-presidential debate victory lap Wednesday, drawing a crowd of thousands to see the two conservative stars of the illegal immigration debate on the same stage.
“You’re the patriots, and you’ve got a lot of people — believe me — a lot of people won’t say it, but they support Donald Trump. They won’t tell you, but when they go into that voting booth, watch out,” Sheriff Arpaio predicted as he introduced Mr. Trump.
Immigration issues have been the lifeblood of Mr. Trump’s unconventional but wildly successful campaign, including his pledges to build a wall across the southern border, deport illegal immigrants and temporarily bar Muslim visitors from entering the country.
It also has spurred a backlash from Hispanic activists pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants and expanded immigration rights, whose sensibilities likely were shaken by the spectacle of Mr. Trump joining forces with “America’s Sheriff” in Mesa, ground zero of the immigration wars.
Relishing the teeming crowd in the cavernous airplane hangar in Mesa, Arizona, Mr. Trump said that his tough stance against illegal immigration had proven so popular that it had forced his rivals to copy him.
“Nobody can be stronger than me on the border. You ever notice how these guys are all pivoting? They are all weak,” he said.
Without dropping names, Mr. Trump’s remark targeted rivals Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who, to varying degrees, have shifted away from supporting a path to citizenship or some other legal status for America’s roughly 11 million illegal immigrants.
“Now they are trying to be more and more [like me]. They can never be more so than me,” said Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump also boasted of his victory in the candidates’ debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. He pointed to 11 online polls that identified him as the winner.
“They did 11 polls. Out of 11 polls, Trump won every one,” he said.
The billionaire businessman and reality TV star said that the tens of thousands of supporters at his rallies across the country were part of a “movement” that would carry him to the White House.
Mr. Cruz made an abrupt shift in his immigration stance during the candidates’ debate Tuesday in Las Vegas, declaring that he would not support granting any form of legal status to illegal immigrants.
During the 2013 Senate debate, he had offered an amendment that would have allowed illegal immigrants to gain permanent legal status, but Mr. Cruz said that was a strategic move, not a statement of support for the plan.
“I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization,” Mr. Cruz said Tuesday.
The hardening of his stance comes as he’s emerged as a chief rival to Mr. Trump. Mr. Cruz leads in several polls of GOP voters in early-voting Iowa and placed second behind Mr. Trump in a series of national polls.
He will need a tough immigration platform to win over Mr. Trump’s supporters if the front-runner falters.
Mr. Rubio, the other chief competitor to Mr. Trump, was part of the so-called Gang of Eight senators who wrote the 2013 bill that would have granted most illegal immigrants quick legal status and, eventually, citizenship rights. The legislation cleared the Democratic-run Senate on a bipartisan vote, but was never sent to the GOP-led House.
Mr. Rubio said Tuesday he still supports the elements of the Gang of Eight bill, but said they must be put on hold until the country secures its borders and fixes the legal immigration system.
Mr. Trump said the bill showed weakness on the part of both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio.
“You remember the Gang of Eight: ‘Come on in, folks, do whatever the hell you want. You’ll be a citizen, don’t worry about it,’” said Mr. Trump.
“The illegal immigration has caused tremendous crime. It’s caused tremendous deaths. It has caused economic hurt, as you know, because a lot of jobs are being taken, and our citizens don’t get those jobs,” he said.
Hammering home his immigration message, Mr. Trump brought on stage Jamiel Shaw Sr., a supporter whose 17-year-old son was shot dead outside their Los Angeles home in 2008 by an illegal immigrant.
Mr. Shaw told the story of how his son, a promising high school football star who was being scouted by Stanford and Rutgers universities, was “shot dead in the street like a dog by an illegal alien gangbanger.”
He said the shooter, Pedro Espinoza, had three gun charges against him and had just been released early from jail after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.
“He shot him in the stomach, with a .45,” said Mr. Shaw. “He was laying on his back, with his hands up, the coroner said, [and was] shot through his hand into his head.”
Police said Jamiel Shaw Jr. was killed execution-style in a case of mistaken identity.
“Trump is the only person who reached out to me. Out of all the politicians, all the black politicians in L.A., nobody cared,” said the father. “It’s all about illegal aliens. That’s all they care about. They don’t care about us as Americans.”
“You’ve got to stand with Trump, and you’ve got to trust him the way I do, because I believe he was sent from God,” he said.