Politics

Democrats Could Lose the Immigration Debate

Republican rhetoric on the border is dishonest and cynical. That doesn’t mean it won’t work.

Trump waves will standing near the border wall.
President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas, on Jan. 12. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

In the past couple of weeks, Donald Trump has reemerged from his Mar-a-Lago bunker with his trademark anti-immigrant, close-the-border, build-the-wall nastiness. He gave a speech at the Lorain County Fairgrounds, where he slammed President Joe Biden on immigration and the border. Then he traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where he held a press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and supported Abbott’s plan to finish Trump’s wall. Later in the day, Trump and Abbott visited the border together, then participated in a border-themed town hall moderated by Sean Hannity.

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In one sense, Trump is playing the hits—returning to the theme that defined his first presidential campaign. But this time he has the full weight of the Republican Party behind him. Democrats shouldn’t discount the possibility that Republicans know what they’re doing.

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Six months into Biden’s presidency, Republicans seem to be winning the debate over immigration, if it’s a fight that is at least in part about theatricality and energizing voters. This doesn’t mean that Republicans are telling the truth about immigration, or that the policies they advocate are better. It also doesn’t mean that Biden isn’t fulfilling his immigration-related campaign promises to undo the damage caused by Trump, of which there’s a lot. It does mean, though, that Republicans are better than Democrats at border theater, utilizing immigration to cudgel their opponents, and setting the terms of the debate.

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Trump and Abbott have become the spokesmen for everything Republicans want you to believe about the border. At their events, they told us that the number of immigrants apprehended between May 2020 (during Trump’s presidency) and May 2021 (during Biden’s) shot up 800 percent. Migrants don’t only come from Latin America, but from 150 different countries, including terrorist-sponsoring countries like Yemen. Fentanyl made in China is being smuggled through Mexico, and a couple of milligrams can be fatal. Mexican cartels function like a well-organized military intent on destroying the United States. The crimes committed at the border move from there to communities across the United States, so we should all care even if we live far from Mexico.

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Moreover, they want us to believe that only Republicans can solve problems at the border. In fact, Trump had largely fixed everything, and now the Biden administration is undoing all of his accomplishments.

Republicans cherry-pick facts that are devoid of context because there is much that they don’t want you to know. First and foremost, they don’t want you to know that, if you were to examine any single 2,000 mile stretch anywhere in the United States, you would inevitably find both citizens and noncitizens committing heinous crimes. They won’t mention that, according to FBI statistics from the Trump years, border cities are some of the safest cities in the United States; safer than Memphis, Dallas, Kansas City, or St. Petersburg, Florida, which are all in states Trump won. Still, they want you to focus on the border rather than any other community in the United States because it allows them to talk about some of their favorite subjects: national security, the rule of law, and, whether they acknowledge it or not, xenophobic dog whistles that appeal to their base and may be close to their hearts as well.

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Even if it’s true that unauthorized migrants come from all over the world, probably even some dangerous places, Republicans don’t tell us that the vast majority come from Latin America. Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela are all included in the top 10 list of sending countries, along with Asian and South Asian countries such as India, China, and the Philippines. There isn’t a single Middle Eastern country on this list. As Republicans have done for a long time, they want us to believe that their efforts to secure the border could be saving us from the next terrorist attack. Rick Perry said it after 9/11; Abbott says it today.

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Here’s more that Republicans don’t tell us: About half of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. today didn’t cross the U.S.-Mexico border but entered through other ports such as marinas and airports; an exceedingly small number of migrants are members of MS-13, while most are workers who build our homes and fix our cars; and the United States is by far the largest producer of carbon in the Americas, responsible for at least some degree of the desiccation in Latin America that has forced, and will increasingly force, Latin Americans to leave their home countries.

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Republicans hide these truths about the border and immigration because it works for them. The Biden administration is right that we won’t get a handle on immigration until we address “root causes” in Latin America, like corruption, political turmoil, or economic and environmental devastation. But it’s hard to get Americans to pay attention to those, when we don’t even want to see the migrants tucked away in the kitchens of restaurants, preparing our food and washing the dishes we eat off of, or the drivers who delivered our food throughout the pandemic. We don’t wonder about why the price of our apples may be rising but is still relatively inexpensive, or why our T-shirts still cost only $10. Unless we demand that our elected leaders—Republicans and Democrats—talk about the immigrant labor that makes so many of our comforts possible, they won’t.

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Democrats may be reassured by polls suggesting that nativist appeals won’t work. A strong majority of eligible voters favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants including farmworkers and essential workers. Support for DACA enjoys the support of an even greater majority of eligible voters, even from most Republicans. To the extent that immigration is an issue that Latino voters care about, Latino political scientists have argued that it’s a “golden opportunity for Democrats” because four-fifths of Latino voters support the whole suite of Biden’s immigration proposals: the American Dream and Promise Act, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and a more humane process for migrants seeking asylum. But when Democrats are confronted by Republican attacks, or they have to contend with difficult issues such as migrant surges at the border, they retreat from prioritizing the progressive immigration reforms that Democratic voters increasingly say they want.

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Meanwhile, much of the news about the border and immigration hasn’t gone well for Democrats, either because of facts on the ground or Republican efforts to spin them. Competing polls conducted in June disagree over whether a narrow majority of Americans approves of Biden’s handling of immigration or whether a narrow majority of Americans disapproves. A strong majority of Americans thinks that unauthorized entry is a serious problem, and that Biden is making it worse. When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S.-Mexico border to address the topic, liberal and conservative media alike described the trips as failures. The negative coverage of them shows both how Republicans have set the terms of the debate and how Democrats often get cowed into behaving like immigration hawks because they’re afraid of political blowback if they do not.

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So what should Democrats do? The truth is that they are in a difficult position, and Republicans are all-too-eager to exploit the fix they’re in. From the center to the left, all agree that Trump’s policies were disastrous for immigrants, but different factions in the Democratic coalition disagree over whether simply rolling them back is enough. It’s not as though the years before Trump were a golden age for immigrants. Many on the left—and many on the right who try to score points by noting the opposition’s shortcomings while ignoring their own party’s hostility to immigrants—point out Biden’s complicity with President Barack Obama’s deportation policies. They want Biden to go farther than Obama did.

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While Democrats claim that no credible politician supports “open borders,” a position that Republicans decry as the preferred outcome of the Democratic mainstream, many on the left do, in fact, argue for open borders, the immediate closing of migrant detention centers, and abolishing ICE. Cecilia Muñoz, an Obama administration official who has been a punching bag of the left for defending her former boss’s immigration policies, was recently chided for expressing frustration that some of her “friends in the immigrant-advocacy community” are “unable or unwilling to name any category of migrants who should ever be returned.”

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But following Obama’s own thinking that politics is the art of the possible, Democrats like Muñoz may be right that, short of including immigration in a budget reconciliation bill, which may or may not be permissible, the best option right now is a proven-to-be-ineffective, Frankenstein-like compromise such as comprehensive immigration reform: a combination of enforcement, naturalization, and adjustments to the number of available visas, in which everybody gets some of what they want, but nobody gets everything.

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The problem with comprehensive reform, and compromise on immigration in general, is that it comes with a high human cost. Every time the idea comes up, it sounds like a holy grail that will overhaul the current system and provide relief, but past efforts at reform left us with a regime that continues to exploit workers with limited rights, allows the owners of private prisons to reap massive profits, deports asylum-seekers who have credible fears of return, all while the number of unauthorized entrants continues to rise.

Critics on the left aren’t wrong that Democrats calling for reform haven’t done all they could to distinguish themselves from their Republican counterparts, and that a greater sense of urgency is required because of the suffering the current arrangement allows. But however naïve I may sound, I believe that Democrats will still do better by immigrants than Republicans will, in part because they recognize that supporting immigrants and making our country better are not mutually exclusive. Biden’s critics on the left should take note of the progress he is making even as they continue to push for more. Biden is not everything, but he and Trump are hardly the same.

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By focusing our attention on immigration and the border, it’s possible that Republicans are making a losing bet, though it’s one I can’t blame them for making. Along with voting restrictions and gerrymandering, immigration and build-the-wall thinking may be their best chance to reclaim power. The sharp lines Republicans draw between citizens and immigrants, and between Americans and the rest of the world, may be moves made out of desperation. Abbott may lose his reelection bid. Republicans may lose their bid to take back the House and the Senate. But I wouldn’t bet on it, because I can’t sell short the appeal of a message that interprets world and national politics as a zero-sum game where we lose if they win.

It is understandable for us to look inward and be motivated by fear when so much around us seems uncertain, from the future of our democracy to even more existential threats like a burning planet. But we should do our best to accurately diagnose our sickness, even if that means—as I believe it does for immigration—demonstrating curiosity about the complexities of the situation rather than grasping for the simplest, most often wrong, answers. Republican and Democratic voters alike should demand from their leaders the whole truth about immigration, even if it doesn’t support their party’s line.

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