President Donald Trump's draconian border enforcement is provoking an equal and opposite reaction from Democrats, who
are ditching past qualms to become unabashed advocates of more humane and open border policies. This has put Atlantic writer David Frum, a neo-conservative-turned-#NeverTrumper, in a tizzy. If Democrats don't do an about-face, they'll put America on the path to fascism, he warns, because "if liberals won't enforce borders, fascists will."
Though certainly bold, Frum's prophesy—it would be wrong to call it a prediction as it admits no uncertainty—is politically simplistic and based on stunningly questionable premises.
To be sure, Frum doesn't embrace every right-wing, anti-immigrant trope. He acknowledges "immigrants are making America safer" because they commit fewer crimes than the native-born population. And he grudgingly accepts that immigrants might be a net economic boon, though he disputes the extent of their fiscal contributions.
But Frum's fevered imagination takes over from there, turning even good things about immigrants into bad news. Most absurdly, he admits immigrants abuse drugs and alcohol at half Americans' rate but twists this into blame for Washington's lackluster response to the opioid crisis. (In Frum's telling, employers would have noticed the absence of their drug-addled American workers sooner were there no immigrants to fill the gaps.)
Likewise, Frum concedes immigrants perform dangerous jobs like drywalling and roofing — only to argue that because they're too powerless to demand labor reforms, they "set back the ideal" of equity. He doesn't seem to have considered that a better cure for these equity concerns might be creating portable guest worker programs without the present visa rules that make workplace advocacy so risky.
Himself a Canadian immigrant, Frum also fears mass immigration is fundamentally changing America's character. Some 45 million foreign-born people live in the U.S., he notes, and by 2027, they'll represent 14.8 percent of the population. That matches the "1890 historic high," which was swiftly followed by the rise of the nativist Know-Nothings and the strict immigration limits they demanded.
Frum does not explain why, a century later, 14.8 percent is still a meaningful metric, nor does he say whether he'd be as worried about "mass immigration" if the bulk of these immigrants were from non-"shithole" countries like Denmark. Canada is already 20 percent foreign-born; Australia is 28 percent; and neither is plagued by the looming fascism Frum envisions being triggered by a lower proportion of immigrants here in the United States.
Though a #NeverTrumper who willingly calls out the president's "demagoguery" about the Central American migrant caravan, Frum's own take on the caravan is functionally similar. He insists that "however manipulatively oversold, the caravan existed; it was not a lie. … Thousands of people were indeed approaching the U.S. border, many hoping to force their way across by weight of numbers."
But it was a lie.
Caravaners travel together for safety, not force, and in nearly 8,000 words, Frum neglects to mention that the overall number of migrants flocking to the border is at near historic lows since 2000, even with the caravans en route. (Trump's harsh rhetoric likely contributed to a February spike in the number of families apprehended, as fear that the border would be closed and asylum options canceled prompted many families to migrate sooner than they'd planned. But a sustained spike is still probably not enough for border crossings to reach 2000 levels.) The composition of would-be immigrants has changed, too: More families fleeing the Northern Triangle countries are flocking to the U.S. border, while the number of single Mexican men has dropped to a trickle.
If there were a true border crisis, Trump's anti-immigration tirades would have wide resonance outside of his base. Hard-hit border towns would jump into Trump's camp. In reality, the opposite has happened. Along the 2,000-mile Mexican border that spans four states and nine House districts, only one seat is held by a Republican, Texas Rep. Will Hurd. He's a persistent critic of Trump's border policies.
So far from shrinking, support for increased immigration has gone up in the age of Trump. Only 24 percent of Americans back cutting legal immigration in contrast to the 40 percent who did in 2006, per the Pew Research Center. To be sure, the partisan divide on immigration has widened, but that's more because Democrats have shifted towards open immigration than because Republicans have become more restrictionist. More crucially for gauging future trends, young people in both parties increasingly believe immigrants strengthen the country, with 58 percent of millennial Republicans holding that view compared with 36 percent of Gen Xer Republicans.
Frum dismisses this rising pro-immigration sentiment as an anti-Trump effect not to be taken seriously. But that's ridiculous. Indeed, the reaction to Trump shows Americans simply don't have the stomach for the kind of harsh enforcement Frum and his fellow restrictionists seek.
It would be politically stupid for Democrats to take Frum's advice and abandon their own base to embrace his prescription, which includes 50 percent cuts in legal immigration—the harshest proposal on the table—and doubling down on border enforcement by building more detention and deportation facilities. (Incidentally, Frum's idea of "humane"—as opposed to "fascist"—enforcement involves keeping families together in prison-like detention camps instead of separating kids from parents.)
In fact, the more Republicans dig in on their restrictionism to court older, white voters, a shrinking share of the population, the more sense it'll make for Democrats to make immigration-friendly policies which appeal to young and ethnic voters a major plank of their platform. Democrats are realizing this, as evidenced by their new comfort with the more unadulterated pro-immigration stance that so bothers Frum.
The Democratic presidential primaries for 2020 will serve as a field test for various shades of immigration-friendly positions. Former Rep. Beto O' Rourke (Texas), born and bred in the border town of El Paso, is at one end of the spectrum as the consummate anti-Trump. He's made Trump's harsh border policies a centerpiece of his campaign and is not only opposed to building a wall, but, in a Reaganesque stroke, has called for tearing down existing barriers. In vivid contrast with Trump's crude immigrant bashing, O'Rourke offers a fundamentally positive vision of immigrants as crucial to America's future success, just as they were to its past. Other Democratic candidates aren't articulating the same message, but none are flirting with Trumpism.
Trump yells "the immigrants are coming" and Frum "the fascists are coming." Hysterically worrying about the former will make the latter much more likely.
Contra Frum, Democrats should not do border restrictionists' work for them.
This column originally appeared in The Week