MSNBC host Chris Hayes asked Senator Kamala Harris a provocative question: "Should ICE exist?"
"Well, certainly," Harris replied, before adding a caveat. "When we're talking about people who have committed serious and violent crimes."
This is where Hayes and the media need to need to follow up with the question every politician needs to answer:
Should the United States enforce immigration laws, even when violators have not committed "serious or violent" crimes?
Absent a clear answer to that question, we are left to parse, although you don't need to be a psycholinguist to interpret Harris' meaning here:
"I believe that there needs to be serious, severe and swift consequence when people commit serious and violent crimes: one human being kills another human being, a woman is raped, a child is molested - there needs to be a serious consequence. And certainly if they are undocumented they should be deported if they commit those serious and violent offenses. So yes, ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist. But let’s not abuse the power. Let’s not extend it to areas that are not posing a threat to the safety and the public safety of these communities...."
Emphasis mine. Harris believes ICE's role in immigration enforcement should be limited to deporting only people who commit the equivalent of murder, rape or child molestation. Furthermore, she believes it is an "abuse" of power for the federal immigration enforcement agency to otherwise enforce federal immigration laws. She wouldn't abolish ICE entirely - as some candidates for office are openly calling for - but she would prevent it from enforcing immigration laws except in extreme circumstances and effectively abolish the function of immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States.
Under Harris' guidelines, anyone who enters the country illegally or overstays a visa can stay - regardless of the numerical limits Congress has placed on immigration - as long as they aren't "serious and violent" criminals.
In other words, "open borders lite."
If I am misinterpreting Harris' answer, I truly hope reporters will give her more opportunities clarify her position.
And by no means should reporters limit themselves to asking Harris. The support for "open borders lite" among politicians is not new. During her run for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton described a vision of immigration enforcement that presaged Harris'.
"We are not going to be deporting hardworking people and breaking up families," Clinton said. "I've been on record for a year-and-a-half about this, and that will be how I direct the Department of Homeland Security to act."
Want to earn a living? Have a family member with you? Immigration laws do not apply to you. If you make it here, you can stay.
"Where did anyone get the idea that Democrats now think enforcement of immigration is inherently wrong?" Josh Barro of Business Insider tweeted last year. "I think Hillary Clinton's choice to endorse what was essentially a global wet foot-dry foot policy had more to do with it."
President Obama (who, ironically, ended wet foot-dry foot) talked about deporting "felons, not families" and reduced the odds of getting removed without a criminal conviction to "essentially zero". Clinton vowed to "go even further."
The day after voters elected Donald Trump to succeed him, however, President Obama intimated that he and Clinton had moved their party too far in the direction of open borders:
"It's going to be important for Democrats and immigration-rights activists to recognize that for the majority of the American people, borders mean something," he said, "there have been times where in our big-heartedness around immigration, we haven't adequately addressed how do we get the orderly and lawful part of it down. And we tend to dismiss people's concerns about making sure that immigration is lawful and orderly."
Establishment media excels at dismissing those concerns.
There are two basic quandaries in the immigration debate. The first is that if the United States is going to have enforced limits to immigration, we are going to have to turn good people away. That's hard for a lot of people to accept. The media does a tremendous job of giving voice to this perspective.
The flip-side - and second quandary - is that if we are not going to turn good people away, then we are going to have open borders lite. That is also hard for a lot of people to accept. The media too often dismisses or misrepresents this perspective.
The media bubble is a problem. Failure to get the idea of immigration limits contributes to a debate marked by distrust and incivility.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Program for NumbersUSA
Updated: Mon, Apr 2nd 2018 @ 8:55am EDT