As Republicans Go Batshit on Immigration, Democrats Turn Into Sweet Angels

Both sides have pulled a switcheroo to play identity politics with their base


Matt Welch chronicled this week how Donald Trump has managed to bait even his relatively sane GOP rivals into saying something totally bonkers on immigration. (My personal favorite was Chris Christie's suggestion to bar code foreign tourists so that they could be tracked like Federal Express packages.) But in the world of competitive politics, one party's insanity is another's opportunity. Hence, Democrats, whose official platform not-too-long ago

Naive Immigrant
pamhule / Foter / CC BY-NC

could have been Sheriff Joe Arpaio's wet dream and whose pro-union proclivities have done more than anything to create the gaping wound that is the 11 million unauthorized immigrants by ending guest worker or bracero program with Mexico in mid '60s, are pulling a switcheroo. They are becoming the unabashed pro-immigration party if their presidential candidates are any indication.

First there is the (soon to be former) frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Her husband pledged to root out "drugs and illegal immigrants" and boasted that he had placed Border Patrol agents so close together in El Paso that they could see each other. Not to be outdone, she herself opposed even drivers' licenses for undocumented aliens. Yet, in a brilliant political move some weeks ago, she went whole hog amnesty. She promised to go much further than even President Obama's recent executive action and "defer" deportation proceedings against not just some illegal immigrants, but virtually all of them, while working toward comprehensive immigration reform that included citizenship for illegals. This might be a pipe dream, but it is clever because while Democrats' white and minority supporters are united on the issue of immigration (or at least not hopelessly divided), the GOP's are not, as I noted:

This means that the more Republicans question and condemn Clinton's support for "amnesty," the more they'll dig themselves in a hole with Latinos and make her more popular. On the other hand, it they stay mute—which is what most of them have done (with the exception of Lindsey Graham)—they'll risk alienating the anti-amnesty white base that they have spent the last decade riling up.

In other words, if Republicans fight Hillary's call for amnesty, they'll lose Latinos, which will benefit Hillary. But if they don't, they'll lose whites, which will also benefit Hillary.

In other words, she has constructed a perfect "heads I win, tails you lose" trap for Republicans IF she survives E-MailGate.

But even more pro-immigration than her is Maryland's former spendthrift-in-chief Governor Martin O'Malley. He left his state in a billion-plus hole and wants to accelerate the pace at which Social Security is bankrupting the country by expanding it but, on immigration, he is striking the most Reaganesque note of anyone left, right or center. While Republicans — contra Reagan — increasingly talk about immigrants as moochers who come to America to live off the welfare state rather than for economic opportunity, O'Malley talks about immigrants as assets rather than liabilities. He charmingly calls immigrants "New Americans" whom he wants to "welcome" because they can help "rebuild the American dream."

He also waxes Reaganesque when he says things like: "We are, and always have been, a nation of immigrants and our immigration laws must reflect our values." And: "The enduring symbol of our nation is the Statue of Liberty, not a barbed wire fence."

He has articulated the most extensive immigration reform agenda that delves deep into immigration law arcana to make it even easier than President Obama's executive order to bring unauthorized aliens out of the shadows. For example, even immigrants who have legal status sometimes must return to their home countries to obtain an a green card, but if they previously lived in the United States as undocumented immigrants, they are barred from reentering for 3 to 10 years. O'Malley says he would grant broad waivers to those immigrants.

As governor he extended in-state tuition to children of unauthorized immigrants. This might seem bananas in the current sulfurous anti-immigrant context. But just three short years ago, Rick Perry, who now wants to summon the National Guard to secure the border, was vociferously defending a similar policy in Texas against Mitt Romney — for the simple reason is that it is unfair to deny state residents access to colleges that they pay for through taxes.

Likewise, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned-Democrat whose announcement that he is running was so quiet it's unclear whether his wife heard him, is a long-standing softie on immigration (and dove on the Iraq War). He supported Sen. John McCain's comprehensive immigration reform  and opposes — or at least has opposed — a wall against Mexico as well as E-Verify. He is for legalization of unauthorized folks and access to in-state tuition.

His fellow rival Sen. Jim Webb, a conservative Democrat, is more of a "secure the border first" rather than a comprehensive reform guy. However, he too would create a path to citizenship and continue federal funding for "sanctuary cities" that defy ICE's unconstitutional detainer requests and refuse to keep undocumented aliens under lock and key pending deportation by Uncle Same without an arrest warrant.

The only Democrat in the presidential field sticking to the original party line on immigration is Bernie Sanders, an old-fashioned protectionist who still lives in a Malthusian universe where the economy is a zero-sum game. He says he'll go further than Obama in legalizing the unauthorized population but wants to shut the door on new immigrants because – bet you never saw this coming!—they threaten American wages and jobs (a line that, of all people, the union-buster Scott Walker has started regurgitating).

But if Sander's fellow-Democrats have changed their tune on immigration it isn't because they have suddenly grokked Adam Smith (after all they still believe that minimum wage mandates don't cost jobs), but because their political incentives have changed.

Restrictionism was a winning strategy when unions were a major force in moving votes and money of America's predominantly white working class in the Democratic direction. But unions are a declining force in America and whites will be a plurality before 2050 — by which time new minorities such as Hispanics and Asians, the product of recent waves of immigration will have doubled from their levels in 2010.

Hence it makes perfect sense for Democrats to not just abandon their former restrictionism but also make immigration — not welfare, environment, economy or jobs — the wedge issue in the upcoming election by countering every nasty anti-immigration statement that comes out of the mouth of their Republican rivals with something piously pro-immigration.

The upshot of all this will be that the two parties will test polar opposite electoral strategies in 2016 with Democrats trying to win by playing identity politics with old and new minorities and Republicans trying to win by playing identity politics with working-class whites. (It is not a coincidence that, along with restricitonism, protectionism is also rising among Republican politicos. Witness Donald Trump's populist jeremiads against "blood-sucking China" and traitorous automakers that move their plants to Mexico.)

Regardless of who prevails, the 180-degree shift by both parties on immigration shows that politics is where principles go to die.

(I addressed why a turn to restrictionism by Republicans ain't all that politically smart here and here. Actually, it is rather moronic.)