Democrats on Immigration Since 1980: From Apathy to Anger to Amnesty (of Sorts)

Like border walls for Republicans, pathway-to-citizenship for Democrats is a recent emphasis


Last week I took a look at the GOP's (d)evolution on immigration policy since 1980, as told mostly through the party platforms every four years. For equal time, I'll do the same here with the Democratic Party.

Alas, unlike Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Democratic rivals Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy never debated in 1980, so there aren't any choice "open the borders both ways" quotes to launch the exercise. As for the party's 2016 candidates, there's not a lot of daylight between them: All advocate comprehensive reform centered around a pathway to citizenship for existing illegal immigrants; all except Jim Webb also promise extensive deportation relief, usually more than what President Barack Obama has already announced. Martin O'Malley wants to boost federal health care spending on illegal immigrants, Bernie Sanders's enthusiasms are tempered by a long history of opposing immigration's impact on low-income Americans, but for the most part, the Democratic consensus is Comprehensive/Pathway/Anti-Deportation, with little talk (aside from Webb, earlier in his career) on "securing the border first."

That has not always been the case.

The two major parties' platform discussions on immigration have mirrored each other, reflecting the news cycle, these past 35 years. For both, the refugee crisis was central and urgent in 1980; in-country migration was an afterthought in the late '80s and '90s, then exploded in a barrage of tough-sounding policy talk in 1996 (some of which I wrote about yesterday). Border security became central after 9/11, and the last two presidential cycles featured much talk about increasing border resources and spreading workplace verification. The great divergence between the two parties since 2008 remains the one dominating discussion today: Republicans are emphasizing walls and border security first, Democrats are focusing most strongly on a pathway to citizenship.

The following is a breakdown of, and quotations from, each Democratic Party platform's immigration sections from 1980 to 2012:

Jimmy Carter visits Century City in 1976. ||| L.A. Times
L.A. Times

Year: 1980

Title: "Refugees and Migration"

Words: 623. Plus another 242 words of purple prose for an "Ethnic America" section ("President Carter has stated that the composition of American society is analogous to a beautiful mosaic"), and another relevant 174 words within "The Developing World" section, as well as 63 cautionary words about the Immigration and Naturalization Service near the top.

Problems: Failure of the INS "to respect fully the human and constitutional rights of all within our borders," as evidenced by "'neighborhood sweeps' and stop and search procedures which are discriminatory or without probable cause." Also, lots of chaotic refugees, particularly from Cuba and Haiti. Plus unfair black market labor competition for the American worker.

Solutions: Well, the Carter administration already solved a lot of this, with the Refugee Act of 1980! It also established an "Office of Ethnic Affairs," plus some refugee-coordination thing within the State Department. Going forward requires more development money for the "Third World," more money for international relief agencies, more cultural sensitivity, and so forth.


we must work to resolve the issue of undocumented residents in a fair and humane way. We will oppose any legislation designed to allow workers into the country to undercut U.S. wages and working conditions, and which would re-establish the bracero program of the past.

World population projections, as well as international economic indicators—especially in the Third World—forewarn us that migration pressures will mount rapidly in many areas of the world in the decade ahead. Our own situation of undocumented workers underscores how difficult it is to deal with economic and employment forces that are beyond any nation's immediate control. […]

We will work with other nations to develop international policies to regularize population movement and to protect the human rights of migrants even as we protect the jobs of American workers and the economic interest of the United States.

Unexplored cause of Dem wipeout in '84: Stopped singing Led Zeppelin. ||| Atlantic Records
Atlantic Records

Year: 1984

Title: There's no section on immigration; just scattered sentences here and there.

Words: Around 137.

Problems: "unprecedented migration"

Solutions: "economic development programs"


Because of the economic instability caused by global debts and by other problems, unprecedented migration into the United States and other parts of the world is occurring in the form of economic refugees. The Democratic Party will support economic development programs so as to aid nations in reducing migration from their countries, and thereby reduce the flow of economic refugees to the U.S. and other parts of the world.

We didn't believe. ||| Time

Year: 1988

Title: The platform has no title, and is instead a series of paragraphs beginning with "WE BELIEVE." Even then, this topic is just not a priority.

Words: Maybe 55, if you're being generous, though my sample below is longer, just so you can get a taste of 1988-era Democratic prose.

Problems: Unfairness, discrimination.

Solutions: Strongly stated belief to the contrary.


WE BELIEVE that we honor our multicultural heritage by assuring equal access to government services, employment, housing, business enterprise and education to every citizen regardless of race, sex, national origin, religion, age, handicapping condition or sexual orientation; that these rights are without exception too precious to be jeopardized by Federal Judges and Justice Department officials chosen during the past years—by a political party increasingly monolithic both racially and culturally—more for their unenlightened ideological views than for their respect for the rule of law. We further believe that we must work for the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution; that the fundamental right of reproductive choice should be guaranteed regardless of ability to pay; that our machinery for civil rights enforcement and legal services to the poor should be rebuilt and vigorously utilized; and that our immigration policy should be reformed to promote fairness, non-discrimination and family reunification and to reflect our constitutional freedoms of speech, association and travel. We further believe that the voting rights of all minorities should be protected, the recent surge in hate violence and negative stereotyping combatted, the discriminatory English-only pressure groups resisted, our treaty commitments with Native Americans enforced by culturally sensitive officials, and the lingering effects of past discrimination eliminated by affirmative action, including goals, timetables, and procurement set-asides.

Year: 1992

Title: "Immigration"

Words: 45; total cut-and-paste job from four years before.

Problems: Unfairness, discrimination.

Solutions: Blandly stated support for the contrary

Sample Whole enchilada:

Our nation of immigrants has been invigorated repeatedly as new people, ideas and ways of life have become part of the American tapestry. Democrats support immigration policies that promote fairness, non-discrimination and family reunification, and that reflect our constitutional freedoms of speech, association and travel.

Together 4-ever. ||| Maring Photography
Maring Photography

Year: 1996

Title: "Immigration"

Words: 462, plus another 152 in the "Welfare Reform" section

Problems: Generally, "We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it." Specifically, insufficient border patrolling, drug-interdicting, and workplace-raiding, and too much welfare for illegals, but also discrimination and Republican meanness.

Solutions: The opposite of all that, plus President Clinton has already solved lots of it. Also, "family members who sponsor immigrants into this country should take financial responsibility for them, and be held legally responsible for supporting them."


Today's Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years before Bill Clinton became President, Washington talked tough but failed to act. In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.

President Clinton is making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away. We have increased the Border Patrol by over 40 percent; in El Paso, our Border Patrol agents are so close together they can see each other. Last year alone, the Clinton Administration removed thousands of illegal workers from jobs across the country. Just since January of 1995, we have arrested more than 1,700 criminal aliens and prosecuted them on federal felony charges because they returned to America after having been deported. […]

We will continue to enforce labor standards to protect workers in vulnerable industries. We continue to firmly oppose welfare benefits for illegal immigrants.

Never forget! ||| Michael S. Hyatt
Michael S. Hyatt

Year: 2000

Title: "Welcoming Our Newest Americans"

Words: 452

Problems: "the current system fails to effectively control illegal immigration, has serious adverse impacts on state and local services, and on many communities and workers, and has led to an alarming number of deaths of migrants on the border." Also: INS backlogs, insufficient English training, and unfairness both to the immigrants and the native-born labor they compete with.

Solutions: "reexamining and fixing these failed policies"! See more below.


We must punish employers who engage in a pattern and practice of recruiting undocumented workers in order to intimidate and exploit them, and provide strengthened protections for immigrant workers, including whistleblower protections. Doing so enhances conditions for everyone in the workplace. We believe that any increases in H1-B visas must be temporary, must address only genuine shortages of highly skilled workers, and mist include worker protections. They must also be accompanied by other immigration fairness measures and by increased fees to train American workers for high skill jobs. The Democratic Party is committed to assuring an adequate, predictable supply of agricultural labor while protecting American farm workers who are among the poorest and more vulnerable in our society. We reject calls for guest worker programs that lead to exploitation, and instead call for adjusting the status of immigrants with deep roots in the country. We should have equitable asylum policies that treat people the same whether they have fled violence from the Right and Left. And we support restoration of basic due process protections and essential benefits for legal immigrants, so that immigrants are no longer subject to deportation for minor offenses, often committed decades ago without opportunity for any judicial review, and are eligible to receive safety net services supported by their tax dollars.

Year: 2004

Title: There is no stand-alone immigration section; just one stranded paragraph, plus a separate section on "More secure borders" that's mostly about container security and such.

Words: 166

Problems: "Today's immigration laws do not reflect our values or serve our security."

Solutions: Pathway to citizenship! Also, better border security, background checks, more English classes.


We will extend the promise of citizenship to those still struggling for freedom. Today's immigration laws do not reflect our values or serve our security, and we will work for real reform. The solution is not to establish a massive new status of second-class workers; that betrays our values and hurts all working people. Undocumented immigrants within our borders who clear a background check, work hard and pay taxes should have a path to earn full participation in America. We will hasten family reunification for parents and children, husbands and wives, and offer more English-language and civic education classes so immigrants can assume all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. As we undertake these steps, we will work with our neighbors to strengthen our security so we are safer from those who would come here to harm us. We are a nation of immigrants, and from Arab-Americans in California to Latinos in Florida, we share the dream of a better life in the country we love.

This exists. ||| The Brownsville Herald.
The Brownsville Herald.

Year: 2008

Title: "Immigration"

Words: 542

Problems: Undetected border crossings, a "dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy," unfairness to legal immigrants, family-breaking raids, millions living in the shadows.

Solutions: Comprehensive reform, including pathway to citizenship, workplace verification, increased border security, more visas for family members and those who work in sectors suffering from labor shortages.


[O]ur current immigration system has been broken for far too long. We need comprehensive immigration reform, not just piecemeal efforts. We must work together to pass immigration reform in a way that unites this country, not in a way that divides us by playing on our worst instincts and fears. We are committed to pursuing tough, practical, and humane immigration reform in the first year of the next administration.

We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked. The American people are a welcoming and generous people, but those who enter our country's borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law. We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence. We need to dismantle human smuggling organizations, combating the crime associated with this trade. We also need to do more to promote economic development in migrant-sending nations, to reduce incentives to come to the United States illegally. And we need to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

Don't fall in love with a DREAMer, 'cuz they'll always take you in. ||| Breitbart

Year: 2012

Title: "Strengthening the American Community"

Words: 642

Problems: "our immigration system is badly broken—separating families, undermining honest employers and workers, burdening law enforcement, and leaving millions of people working and living in the shadows."

Solutions: Comprehensive reform, emphasizing pathway to citizenship,

Sample (emphases in original):

"We congratulate President Barack Obama for giving hope to millions of aspiring citizens when he announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Immigrant youth—who grow up attending our schools, churches, and places of recreation—come to this nation with the same desires and ideals the forefathers had; liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. In order to create immigration policies that reflect our nation's values, lawmakers must work together to protect the rights of all and create a road map that allows immigrants to become full-fledged citizens. With our dreams, work, and talent we can help make America a more just and prosperous country."—Gaby Pacheco, Listening to America hearing participant

At some point, I'll conduct similar exercises with the Libertarian and Green parties.