Immigration and the Rat Race
A memo from the Center for American Progress warns vulnerable Democrats to spend "as little time as possible" talking about immigration. The websites of at least five vulnerable Senate Democrats make no mention of immigration (although one of them -- Joe Donnelly of Indiana -- is running ads saying he supports ICE and funding for Trump's border wall).
"[W]here Democrats see caution signs, Republicans see opportunities," reports Julie Hirschfeld Davis ("G.O.P. Finds an Unexpectedly Potent Line of Attack: Immigration," The New York Times, October 14, 2018).
"Hardly for the first time, the party had entered the immigration debate with palpable misgivings -- and then, at the brink of action, scattered," writes Robert Draper about the Democratic Party's indecision on the "abolish ICE" question ("The Democrats Have an Immigration Problem," The New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2018).
How Did We Get Here?
How did we get to the point where conventional political wisdom views immigration as an issue Democratic candidates should avoid and Republicans should lean into? The media's coverage of Trump's immigration policies over his first 100 days was 96 percent negative, according to a Harvard study -- and that was before the wave of negative coverage after Trump backed legislation to reduce "even legal immigration"; or the tsunami of negative coverage (some of which was publicly debunked) when the Department of Justice announced it would increase prosecutions of adult illegal border crossers, even if it meant separating children from their parents. President Trump consistently offers statements about immigration and immigration that reporters highlight and justifiably criticize.
Immigration, Politics and the Media
If mainstream news stories reflected the views of voters, politicians of both parties would be running hard against all of Trump's immigration policies. Yet Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports that even advocacy groups aligned against immigration restriction and enforcement are advising Democratic candidates to not get caught in substantive debates: "you can decry the racism in these attacks," Frank Sharry of America's Voice tells the Times, "and pivot to the kitchen table issues that most voters care about." Name calling and changing the subject is not the strategy of a confident movement.
Something about the way voters look at immigration has yet to be incorporated into how immigration reporters cover the issue. There is a disconnect. Among the punditry, however, many voices from across the political spectrum are threatening to prick the media bubble.
In his New York Times oped last week, "What the Left Misses About Nationalism, " John B. Judis - author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority" and the newly-published "The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization" - recaps the role immigration is playing in national and global politics.
The rush of immigrants in the United States has brought about a clash of culture just as it had in past centuries. Employers have also used low-skilled immigrants to undercut unions and to turn mid-wage jobs in construction, meatpacking and janitorial services into low-wage labor. After Sept. 11, 2001, the resentment toward immigrants became fused with a rising fear in the United States and especially in Europe of Islamist terrorism. That created a huge political backlash against immigrants and refugees.
Put that backlash together with the anger bred by lost manufacturing jobs and declining social services from reduced tax revenues, and you have the political base for Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016, Brexit and Italy’s League party.
Emphasis added to highlight what NumbersUSA was originally created to address. Judis is right to point to several different variables that have changed the politics of immigration. The news media, however, tends to grossly over simplify the multitude of concerns, as this excerpt from Robert Draper's story demonstrates:
Today the Democratic Party is generally pro-immigration. And yet many of its elected officeholders remain deeply wary of saying so and especially conflicted about how to address the flaws in the country’s immigration system -- or whether to address them at all. Their reasoning may be as simple as this: Unlike Republican voters, who routinely punish their politicians for being insufficiently anti-immigrant, Democratic voters do not reward theirs for being forthrightly pro-immigrant.
Emphasis added. Draper's framework - commonly used in immigration news stories - assumes an all-or-nothing scenario where numbers don't matter. And because Draper's framework equates "anti-immigration" with being "anti-immigrant" the binary choice he offers is cast in stark moral terms which can be quite effective at activating our us-vs-them tribal instincts. In other words, it is a useful framework for advocacy but a terrible one if your goal is to help Americans understand each other. Without question, the pro-vs-anti framework in news stories tips the scales in favor of enforcement skeptics (and undermines public trust in the media), but binary frameworks cut both ways. Donald Trump, for instance, regularly shuts down debate over enforcement by saying "If you don't have borders, you don't have a country." Trump also traffics in stark moral terms: accusing critics of his immigration policies as endangering the safety of the American people.
Like the conservative writer Reihan Salam, the liberal John B. Judis rejects the binary frameworks favored by both Trump and the press. Judis writes about immigration not as a value (like "welcoming" or "inclusivity") but as a regulated system that produces trade offs and begs questions of scale. He doesn't stack the moral deck in favor of one camp over another. When writers like Salam and Judis move beyond black-and-white thinking, the concepts of inclusivity and immigration moderation are no longer mutually exclusive. Judis writes:
In Mr. Trump's version of nationalism, Muslims and Mexican-Americans are stigmatized...But these failings should not lead you to dismiss the value of nationalism, which, by itself, is neither good nor evil, liberal nor conservative.The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon....
....Here is the simple truth: As long as corporations are free to roam the globe in search of lower wages and taxes, and as long as the United States opens its borders to millions of unskilled immigrants, liberals will not able to create bountiful, equitable societies, where people are free from basic anxieties about obtaining health care, education and housing.
The Past Year of Immigration Punditry
Back to that memo: The Center for American Progress' advice to Democrats will not have been an "unexpected" surprise to many pundits who have been following the politics of immigration over the past 12 months. What follows is a series of excerpts from the past twelve months, starting with Judis himself, who issued this warning last October, one week after the Trump administration released its immigration principles and legislative priorities:
Democrats and liberals would be wise not to dismiss as nativism the concern that many voters have with the huge influx of illegal immigrants and of unskilled legal immigrants into the the country over the last 50 years. There is a real question about whether our immigration policy has has [sic] contributed to wage stagnation and inequality. Democrats' failure to address this question - except to insist that everyone benefits – has contributed to the party's isolation from voters who used to be part of their majority.
On November 5, 2017, as Republican Ed Gillespie was trying to use fear of illegal-immigrant gangs to close the gap between himself and his opponent Ralph S. Northam (who would go on to defeat Gillespie), Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist, told The New York Times:
If the debate is set up so that Republicans are the only ones who want some sort of order or limitations on immigration and Democrats want zero, we will lose that debate every single day," said Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist. "We need to say that immigration makes the country strong and is at the core of who we are, and this is how we do it: with order, laws and compassion. Unfortunately, Trump is boxing us into being the open borders party, which is not where most of the country is.
Democrats continue to move left on economics, believing that this will make them more credible populists. But polling shows that the public is already with them on economic issues. Where they differ -- and especially with white working-class voters -- is on immigration. Yet the party is now more extreme on the topic than it has ever been. Positions that dozens of Democratic senators took on immigration 10 years ago are now rejected by almost every party leader.
In the new year of 2018, after the Democrats briefly shutdown the government in an attempt to get a legalization for Dreamers passed, T.A. Frank - who perhaps more than any other writer understood the politics of immigration during the 2016 campaign - wrote that immigration would likely be the one issue working against a blue wave in the midterms:
The Democratic Party is already to the left of the median voter on immigration, but its rising stars—Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, among them—are to the left of their own party. And their thinly-veiled presidential ambitions could be a problem if they want a wave that will flip the balance of power in Congress.
In late January, Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine noticed the public support for lowering annual immigration numbers, and wondered how Trump's proposal to reduce immigration after a decade while giving 1.8 million Dreamers a 10-to-12-year path to citizenship would change the political calculus:
Obviously public opinion on all these complex issues is less than entirely stable. But you can make a good case that by conceding the very popular Democratic position on Dreamers, and refocusing the debate on the reasonably popular conservative position on legal immigration, the White House is trading up politically. No, it’s not going to produce a bipartisan breakthrough; the once-vibrant support among Democrats for generally lower levels of legal and illegal immigration has all but vanished, even as conservative hostility to “amnesty” has grown more intense. But it could polarize the parties in a way that further isolates Republicans who favor a pro-immigration deal, while eroding the public-opinion foundation of the Democratic position.
Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote that given public opinion and legitimate questions about immigration limits, it made sense for immigration restrictionists like Stephen Miller to be part of the negotiations of a deal. The backlash against the Times for publishing Douthat's op-ed from Twitter and from the senior news editor at Salon prompted Damon Linker of The Week to write:
...a surprisingly large number of liberals [are] not claiming that cuts to legal immigration shouldn't be made, but that the very act of proposing and defending them in the first place is morally illegitimate. These liberals appear to believe that immigration restrictionists should be excluded on principle from participating in public debate and discussion about immigration policy in the United States.
Trump's proposal didn't come close to passing the Senate. On January 31, David Frum - author of "Trumpocracy - The Corruption of the American Republic" - said the collective failure to pass a compromise made both Trump and the Democrats look bad:
No president has moved this far, this fast, toward his opponents’ position on a domestic-policy matter since Bill Clinton seized welfare reform from Republicans in the middle 1990s. Yet unlike Clinton - who made welfare reform the centerpiece of his devastatingly effective 1996 State of the Union address - Trump's rhetorical effort at persuasion almost certainly failed....
....Leaders of the Democratic Party - and especially the 2020 presidential hopefuls - now seem to regard almost any form of enforcement against people illegally present inside the United States as a racist denial of human rights. The only change party leaders will contemplate is for higher total numbers and lower legal standards.
On the same day Frum issued his post-mortem, Howard Husock of City Journal mused about the incredible shift within the Democratic Party:
[Barbara] Jordan called out low-skilled immigration as responsible for depressing the wages and employment of African-Americans, a perspective that has now been banished from Democratic dogma as hateful and divisive. The report led Clinton to agree to reduce legal immigration by one-third. All this at a time when Donald Trump was a Democrat!
On February 1st, as Masha Gessen of The New Yorker suggested that Democrats should "question the premise that the dumb luck of having been born in the United States gives a group of people the right to decide who may enter the premises," Elizabeth Drew of The New Republic, was calculating the political costs of shutting down the government for Dreamers:
There are ideological and regional differences within the Democratic Party, ranging from the very liberal left to centrists, particularly those who don’t represent the coastal states. The recent split among the Senate Democrats over immigration strategy was one example. It pit the more leftward Democrats, especially those who are considering a run for the presidential nomination in 2020, against those from more conservative states. The leftward members and what some other senators call "the 2020s" wanted to make a statement that guaranteeing protections for the so-called Dreamers, or DACA kids, was more important than keeping the government open - a position that Republicans were using against Democratic senators up for reelection this year in the more conservative states.
If shutting down the government for foreign citizens - even ones the public broadly sympathizes with - was politically risky, so is "open defiance of the rule of law," as James Kirchick wrote in The Washington Post in March:
Liberals who seriously want to defend liberal democracy should stop condemning those who disagree with them on immigration. Uncritical support for wide-open borders is a major reason for the collapse of social democracy in Europe, as traditional center-left voters have flocked to populist, anti-immigration parties, which are often the only ones offering reasonable limits on immigration.
On March 16th, as 83 House Democrats urged their leadership to cut funding for immigration enforcement, and an ad campaign for American tech workers sparked controversy in San Francisco, William A. Galston of The Wall Street Journal echoed Kirchick's themes and called for "inclusive economic growth":
Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order. No issue has done more than immigration to feed populism, and finding a sustainable compromise would drain much of the bile from today’s politics.
On April 12, Galston's colleague Peggy Noonan wrote about the country needing a "shared sense of the national dream" that foreshadowed Reihan Salam's argument that current immigration policy is harming the children of ]immigrants. Noonan urged Republicans to rethink their cheap-labor mindset on immigration:
[Republican] Senators and representatives still have not reckoned with the shock of 2016. They're repeating what’s been said and following an old playbook....Those NeverTrump folks trying to take back authority within the party - having apparently decided recently not to start a third one - are the very people who made the current mess. They bought into open-borders ideology.
Noonan's column made it very clear that, to her mind, Republicans had not taken the political lessons of 2016 to heart. Yet in the early days of summer, just as the public outcry against separating families at the border was reaching a fever pitch, Democrats demonstrated that they hadn't either.
On May Day, Democratic National Committee deputy chair Keith Ellison wore a shirt that said "I don't believe in borders" in Spanish.
On June 21st, a bill to reduce immigration, mandate E-Verify, and give lifetime work-permit renewals and legal status to DACA recipients fell 20 votes short of passing in the House with no Democratic support.
The president’s cruelty made it easy to oppose his policy. But in their delight at the Trump administration’s latest misstep, Democrats may be walking into a trap. The larger question is surely: Should the country enforce its immigration laws or, if circumvented, should we just give up?
Zakaria's question was a twist on Trump's campaign mantra "If we don't have a border, we don't have a country" and "pro-immigration" politicians haven't come up with a response. Andrew Sullivan called Trump's line the "most powerful thing" he said during the campaign and its power has not diminished.
On June 26th, Rich Lowry of National Review wrote:
"Trump talks of immigrants in the crudest terms (they are infesting or invading), and portrays them as budding violent criminals. Illegal immigrants routinely violate the law to come, stay, and work in the U.S., but the overwhelming majority simply want a job."Yet, with apologies to Irving Kristol, the one thing the American people know about Donald Trump is that he believes we have a border and it should be enforced. About his opponents, they know no such thing - and how could they?"
Also on June 26th, Marc A. Theissen of The Washington Post described the Zakaria/Trump question in specific policy terms:
"Americans oppose family separation, but they also oppose 'catch and release.' A new Economist/YouGov poll showed that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of separating families who cross the border illegally. But only 19 percent support 'releasing the families and having them report back for an immigration hearing at a later date' -- the approach now endorsed by every single Senate Democrat."
Zakaria, Lowry, Sullivan and Theissen exposed a problem for Democrats: the more time spent talking about the separation of families, the more they would have to defend the even-less-popular catch-and-release. Barring Congressional action, enforcement agencies have no way to both keep families together and enforce the law.
On July 5th, a day after anti-ICE protestors shut down Liberty Island, syndicated columnist Froma Harrop wrote that Democrats' response to Trump's immigration policies were making his most unpopular positions look moderate by comparison:
"If I worked for Donald Trump and designed a T-shirt that read “I don't believe in borders” in Spanish - and I got a Democratic congressman, say Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, to parade in it - I'd probably get a raise. Heck, he might even give me a top agency job with his unspoken permission to abuse the taxpayers."But Trump didn’t need to pay anyone to pull off the T-shirt feat. Ellison did it for him and for free."
In July, a record 22 percent of Americans said immigration was the nation's most important problem, including 35 percent of Republicans, according to Gallop:
"President Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign rested in part on his controversial proposals relating to immigration....if the general immigration focus continues through the fall, GOP candidates may be able to fire up the enthusiasm of the part of their base highly concerned about immigration and that in turn favors the Republican approach to this issue. Of course, to a lesser degree, with a rising percentage of Democrats mentioning immigration as the top problem, Democratic candidates can also gain traction on the issue..."
"This, it seems to me, is what impedes the Democrats from taking a strong line on illegal immigration. Many of them don’t have the slightest problem with it, and some even believe it is a moral necessity. A wealthy country cannot ethically keep its wealth to itself, they believe. And this is even truer when such a country is largely white and those outside it overwhelmingly nonwhite. Borders, in this worldview, are inherently racist. So how exactly does a good liberal favor enforcing them? He doesn’t. He just pretends to."
On August 20, Trump used an event honoring ICE and CBP to highlight Democratic opposition to the enforcement agency. The following day, charges were brought against a man in the country illegally for the murder of a young woman in Iowa. The company that hired him did not use E-Verify.
On September 20, Froma Harrop blamed Republicans for not mandating E-Verify and prominent Democrats for not taking a more sensible line on enforcement:
"The remedy for inhumane enforcement is humane enforcement, not no enforcement. Calls to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are grossly irresponsible. By taking that stance, Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have justly hurt their prospects for higher office."
Immigration and the Mid Terms
If the current conventional wisdom holds, the immigration issue will help Republicans more than Democrats in the midterm elections, although it is far from clear whether or not that will be enough for Republicans to keep the house. Earlier this year In Virginia, Ed Gillespie won immigration voters by a 46-percent margin but still lost (only 12 percent of Virginia voters said immigration was their top issue). Gillespie, a long-time immigration expansionist, only adopted Trump's playbook on the intersection between immigration and crime. He never talked about an immigration system that would be more fair to wage-earning American workers. If Republicans follow the Gillespie model, the immigration issue will likely play out as a question of which Party's position is more loathed by voters. That goes for Trump, as well.
The last word (for now) goes to Judis:
"Mr. Trump’s immigration initiatives, too, have merely reinforced cultural resentments and done little to stem the oversupply of unskilled and easy-to-exploit unauthorized immigrants."
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Dec 14th 2018 @ 7:00am EST