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.

NEXT: Well, Ted Cruz Is Consistent: He Thinks Gays Should Be Able to Turn Christians Away

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  1. Pretty much the evidence points to a Democratic party platform that turns to the wind like a weathercock. So much for principle.

    1. They have never been the party of principle; they're the "big tent" party, and the problem with trying to be the party of everybody is that you can't really have any principles, since all people do not share the same principles. So you fall back on a kind of lowest-common-denominator, which is to be the "Free Shit For Everybody" party: YOU get free college tuition! YOU get free healthcare! YOU get tax breaks for creating "green jobs"! The only other thing left that appeals to everybody is a vague, diffuse "and beat up on the bad guys", who could be Muslim terrorists, or corporations, or bankers, or whoever happens to be unpopular this week.

  2. Matt, if you want me to focus on the content of your work, don't entice me - because ADHD -with Zeppelin.

    Now I went off to listen to 'Hey, hey what can I do?'

  3. To the Roman Empire reference!

    I'm not sure what the United States can do except to make the, from what I read, immigration process less bureaucratic and therefore more efficient while enforcing some of its basic laws on the books.

    Beyond that, it's sort of what Rome experienced when Germanic tribes crossed the limes. Rome never really had an immigration policy per se (if memory serves me right) and instead just incorporated the tribes into their culture (helped by the fact the Germans wanted to be Romanized) and military forever changing Rome and later Italy as regions like Lombardia show.

    Not only that, historians still debate whether this 'invasion' was an onslaught (which contemporary conservatives believe is happening in the U.S.) or a slow process churning over centuries.

    I'm partial to the latter myself even though there were periods when it was a furious incursion.

    I suspect we'll be talking about American immigration in the same way for posterity. However, one thing is certain - America will forever change even if they don't see it. Rome shows us that much.

    1. My correction:

      "Roman border policy was an extremely important aspect of the empire's wellbeing. For at least two centuries from the time of Emperor Augustus onward the attitude was substantially one of non aggressive imperialism to ensure border security for its overstretched resources except perhaps in some areas where campaigns might be conducted to reinforce or straighten/shorten a border. Particular attention and focus was paid on the borders with the Germanic tribes along the Danube and one those in the region of Syria with the Parthian empire and over time a system of limites or limes (fortified walls and ditches) was constructed of which Hadrian's wall in Britain is a famous example."


  4. So Democrats used to be the party of the working man, but when they decided identity politics were more profitable they decided to place their bets on third world immigration.

  5. Democrats fall into three major groups:

    Labor: Nothing else matters except jobs. Industry and Corporations will be supported and even subsidized if it props up, saves or creates union jobs. Damn the environment if it gets in the way of union jobs.

    Environment: Everything takes a back seat to the environment. Everything that exacerbates global climate change must be challenged and stopped. Poor brown people in other countries, unions can go fuck themselves, because gaia is the most important considration.

    Identity politics: Everything is racist, someone, somewhere is being discriminated against... "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". Freedom of speech is a right-wing concept, racism lurks under every rock, behind every blade of grass.

    1. Labor: Nothing else matters except jobs.

      I would say, nothing matters except union jobs that support the crony union power structure. They are actively hostile to all other jobs, as far as I can tell.

    2. Labor: I've heard arguments that a fairly efficient guest worker program was blown up because of union pressure against it. Is that accurate?

      1. The Democrats were angry at Bill Clinton over NAFTA, because dirty, unsafe Mexican workers driving trucks, competing with Teamsters.

      2. There's also the bracero program for agricultural workers.

        Ended by LBJ. Typical Republican bigot, that one.

  6. If you have a comprehensive welfare state, you have to have a way to keep people from moving here just to get the bennies.

    Its easy enough to say "No bennies for immigrants", but you have to enforce that.

    Which means, at bottom, a requirement that all immigrants have jobs or otherwise be self-supporting, a means of confirming that people are who they say they are (otherwise, your prohibitions on giving bennies to immigrants erode), and so forth.

    Congratulations. The existence of welfare state requires the existence of a robust and intrusive immigration enforcement program. The one we have is far, far worse than it needs to be, but something like it is inevitable when you have a welfare state.

    OK, you say, we can have open borders once we get rid of the welfare state. And I agree. Get back to me when that happens, and I will personally cut the "Open for Business" ribbon at the Rio Grande.

    1. Conservatives love their welfare state so much that they want to deny people their freedom of movement to protect it.

    2. If you have a comprehensive welfare state, you have to have a way to keep people from moving here just to get the bennies.


      1. Why?

        Because if you don't they will. And that has two impacts:

        (1) Mathematically, it runs up the cost of those programs to accelerate their unsustainability.

        (2) Politically, it wrecks support for the programs if people start seeing people moving here to pick their pockets and live la dolce vida on someone else's tab.

        1. Speaking solely from a strategic standpoint, 2) seems like a good thing. What's the difference between someone moving here to live off the dole and someone being born here?

          1. yeah, I mean what's the difference between supporting your dead-beat brother-in-law and supporting your dead beat brother-in-law, his sister, her kids, their stepdad, his cousin and her drug dealer.

            What's the difference in supporting the welfare state we have now and supporting it for another 5 billion people.

            Nothing at all.

            1. So you think 5 billion people are going to come here to live off welfare?

              Regardless, you misunderstand my point. If people get pissed off at people moving here to take advantage of the welfare system, maybe they will get pissed off at people born here taking advantage of the welfare system. And if that is the case maybe it becomes easier to reform the system.

    3. Hi DC Dean,

      We can have a comprehensive welfare state (for those who need it) and avoid people from sneaking in by merely eliminating Cash and have every commercial transaction done via Biometric. With no Social Security, no one would be able to purchase a hot dog.

      We would not need a Fence. If one is unregistered, one will not be able to purchase anything.

      I know there may be a privacy concern, but we don't need to record who buys what, all we need to do is to be sure that the person is registered.

      Eliminating cash is the way to go.

      Will we have a minor barter economy and could I buy a hooker groceries for a blowjob? Of course. But to criminal enterprise can be established with barter.

      1. Like I said, if you want open borders and a welfare state, you need a police state.

        And having every single transaction trackable and traceable, subject to review by the Total State and subsequent enforcement action, is a totalitarian's wet dream.

        Your proposal is akin to curing a headache with decapitation.

        1. You don't think we can scan an individual and just get a YES/NO answer?

          I understand your concern of recorded commercial transactions. Fact is, practically everyone uses credit cards, internet, easy-pass, cell phones. Big brother may not be necessarily be watching, but today, Big brother can definitely look us up.

          I think the ship has saled on commercial privacy. I think the only thing i pay for in cash is weed.

          1. This is where liberals fuck up, time and time again. You see something happening and instead of recognizing that it is a transient situation that will change over time, you assume it is the "new normal" and turn it from an organic development into a legal mandate. It doesn't matter that many people are not using cash on a day-to-day basis any more; you don't know what tomorrow is going to be like. You shouldn't assume that what is will always be, any more than you should assume that was should always be.

      2. What a horrific proposal. Just keep the illegals out. They're not worth my freedom.

    4. I get the welfare concerns. I think they are valid.

      But it seems (and I'm not necessarily accusing you of this) that they are often thrown up as a smoke screen to shut down further debate on ways we can improve the immigration system.

      Give people a viable way to enter the country legally, with proper documentation, and most of them will take it. That makes it that much easier to check if people have a job lined up, or at least a way of supporting themselves. It makes it that much easier to screen for health and criminal background. It makes it that much easier to collect taxes from non-citizen workers in order to at least partially support the services they use (lots of those services are unsustainable regardless, but that is a separate issue in my mind). It makes it that much easier to focus resources on detecting and apprehending the now much smaller number of people trying to sneak across the border for nefarious purposes.

      You may not be able to have truly open borders with an expansive welfare state, but only the most ideologically committed are actually talking about true open border. Most of us just want something more streamlined and realistic than what we have now, and that can actually help alleviate the welfare concerns.

      1. You can't have open borders when no one else does. You pretty much have to have everything else put together before its at all feasible. And we are light epyears away from open borders being feast pole.

        Just keep the fucking illegals out.

    5. How much of the immigrant-welfare problem is federal in nature? Why do the policies of California (e.g.) necessitate a heavier hand from the Feds?

    6. I'm no expert on what bennies an illegal alien can get here in America, but I would guess that a simple system of demanding an ID would help (I know, that's racist).

      I mean, I imagine that if I went down to apply for food stamps, or housing or pretty much anything, I'm going to have to present some sort of identification.

      I'm not sure how strangers freely moving across the border burden our welfare systems.

      1. As far as I can tell, tightening immigration controls and enforcement thereof for reasons other than security basically amount to: we can't solve our domestic political problems, but we can keep the immigrants from exacerbating them. Actually, even doing so for security reasons is not really different; we have a domestic political problem in the form of police not doing their jobs (protect the life, liberty, and property of the people), either out of their own self-interest or due to the political fecklessness of their superiors.

        The part I don't understand is where anyone thinks that, given the fact that none of our domestic political problems can be solved, we can somehow solve any other problem. "We can do it if we want to" can be said of tackling any issue.

      2. 13.7% of California's K-12 education budget goes towards illegal alien kids.

        1. Do the feds force California to teach illegal alien kids?

          1. WHY CAN'T JUANITO READ!?

        2. And if you gave them a path to legal status, their property taxes would help offset that cost.

          Not that money is the problem with the education system. But if that is what you are concerned with legal status helps, not hurts.

          1. And if you gave them a path to legal status, their property taxes would help offset that cost.

            They're already paying property taxes via rent to their landlord, so there's no net increase to be gained there.

        3. Ok, interesting. So when I enrolled my daughter in school, why did I have to show 942 forms of ID, prove I lived within a certain neighborhood and met a bevy of requirements before they'd allow her in the door? Could I have just said, "no papers, she ain't from 'round here, start ejucatin' her'?

    7. If you have a comprehensive welfare state, you have to have a way to keep people from moving here just to get the bennies.

      Mexico solves that problem by requiring immigrants to have the means to support themselves.

  7. I recall that there was a suggestion for a cake dome, how's that coming along?

  8. What if we made the border wall out of surplus ladders? That way everybody wins!

  9. Oh OK....The Democrats is an Immigrants biggest enemy


    1. "The other lizard might win!"

  10. I think AmSoc or Tony or somebody similar posted on one of the other topics that of course the Democrats' position on immigration has changed, it's called evolution. And there is a grain of truth there, because people and parties should be allowed to evolve in their political thinking, and because it would be stupid to insist that today's Democratic party is exactly the same as, say, the Alabama Democratic Party of 1960.

    But it misses an important point: if they've really evolved in their thinking, it would require saying, "We were wrong before, this is why we were wrong, and this is what we believe now and why we believe it", rather than continuing to march behind the exact same leaders who are now promoting policies completely in opposition to the ones they used to promote. One is a sign of honest reflection and admission, and the other is "We have always been at war with Eastasia."

    1. Excellent point.

    2. It's almost like they think it would be detrimental to articulate the reason for the change...

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