A big concern with President Donald Trump's attacks on immigration has been that he'll move the Overton window in a restrictionist direction. Trump, the argument goes, will normalize a blood-and-soil nativism on the right while putting Democrats on the defensive, crippling rational and humane reforms.
That indeed seemed to be happening before the midterms. But since then, Democrats have been lashing back.
As Republicans grow more restrictionist, it was easy to imagine that the Democrats might take the path just followed by the Social Democrats in Denmark, who last week clawed their way back to power after a long hiatus by embracing the hardline immigration agenda of the far-right parties. After all, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has been going around warning that we need to rethink generous immigration policies lest they lead to more reactionary right-wing populism. And it was her husband, President Bill Clinton, who repudiated Ronald Reagan's "amnesty" because unauthorized immigrants, in his telling, were stealing American jobs and mooching off welfare. Indeed, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that Clinton signed paved the way for Trump's draconian deportation crackdowns.
But the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are moving in the opposite direction—with the notable exception of Joe Biden. But Biden is, as my colleague Matt Welch writes, a rusty weather vane who will "creak in the direction of the prevailing winds eventually, apologetically if need be," so it's not hard to imagine that he too will eventually come around.
Around the same time that Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico if it didn't stop the tide of Central American migrants, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke launched a bid to revive his flagging campaign with an immigration reform plan that is an outright repudiation of Trump's border policies. Titled "In Our Own Image," it pledges to immediately end the "needless chaos and confusion at our borders and in our communities" that Trump's "cruel and cynical policies" have sown. A former congressman from El Paso, a border town, O'Rourke pledged to lift Trump's travel ban, stop family separations, limit border detentions to criminal aliens, suspend plans to build the Great Wall of Trump, and channel the wall money into boosting border security infrastructure and hiring more judges to speed up asylum claim processing. He'd also give temporary protected status to "Dreamers"—immigrants who've grown up in America after they were brought here illegally as children—while he worked to pass laws to create a pathway for permanent legalization for all the 11 million unauthorized aliens.
Much of O'Rourke's plan is borrowed from a rival, Julian Castro. But one truly inspired stroke in his proposal is that he would create new visas that churches and communities could use to sponsor refugees, ingeniously neutralizing the objection that these people would burden the public fisc. Nonetheless, Castro's "People First" plan is superior overall, because it makes decriminalization of immigration its centerpiece. To that end, Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, proposes scrapping Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which in 1952 made illegal entry a criminal rather than a civil violation, setting the stage for crackdowns in the name of "enforcing the law." Castro wouldn't abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But he would break it into two agencies, then scale back and reassign its enforcement functions to other agencies within the Department of Justice.
Neither of the two plans is perfect. Both focus on scaling back immigration enforcement and say nary a word about expanding visa options for future workers, the only sure-fire way of diminishing future illegal flows. They'd both create a "Marshall Plan" that pumps billions to stabilize the Northern Triangle countries that migrants are fleeing, as though aid to kleptocracies and other dysfunctional regimes wouldn't just make things worse.
O'Rourke and Castro aren't exactly frontrunners, but they aren't outliers on this issue. At a recent forum in Pasadena, California, Sens. Kamala Harris (who is hardly averse to draconian crackdowns) and Bernie Sanders (who once derided open borders as a Koch conspiracy) both took pains to lambast Trump's harsh enforcement actions. Sanders declared that "America must never be a country where babies are snatched from the arms of their mothers." Harris lamented what the fear of deportation is doing to children in immigrant families. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the latest to jump in the Democratic fray, talked up his own plan to rebuild the refugee program that Trump has gutted.
The candidates have also been going after those among them who aren't sufficiently immigrant-friendly. Castro and Harris have been attacking former Vice President Joe Biden for helping shepherd the 1996 Clinton law through the Senate. Biden also voted for the Bush-era 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized funding for a 700-mile wall and has yet to back away from punishing employers that hire unauthorized immigrants. Meanwhile, Castro, who was President Barack Obama's secretary of housing and urban development, has been obliquely criticizing his former boss for prioritizing health care reform over immigration reform in his first term.
What explains this Democratic romance with immigrants? Part of it is that a general revulsion at Trump's border cruelty—his child separation polices, internment-style camps for Central American asylum seekers, deportations of people who've built lives in America—is generating a pendulum swing in a pro-immigration direction. Indeed, 61 percent of the respondents in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last fall said that "immigration helps the United States more than it hurts" and 28 percent said it hurts. In 2005, by contrast, 37 percent said immigration helps more and 53 percent said it hurts. That's a 49-point swing in immigration's favor and Democrats are reflecting that.
But the other reason is that after losing the 2012 presidential elections, Republicans had a choice between two opposite electoral strategies. One was to stop their immigration trash-talk and court Hispanics and other minorities whose presence is growing in a rapidly diversifying America, as the Republican National Committee's autopsy report recommended. ("If Hispanic Americans perceive the GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence," it said.) The other was to give up on Hispanics entirely and chase down the white—and some black—voters who Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende's analysis revealed were "missing" in the 2012 election because they were simply not enthused by the choices. But that, he said, would require abandoning "economic libertarianism" and embracing a combination of restrictionism, protectionism, and entitlement spending.
Trump's GOP has obviously embraced the Trende strategy on steroids. The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein points out that Republicans now hold fewer than one in five House seats where the minority population exceeds the national average, and fewer than one in eight seats in districts with more immigrants on average. This leaves the Hispanic terrain wide open for Democrats to pursue by ditching their past flirtations with restrictionism and embracing the cause of immigration whole hog.
Which strategy wins out in the end remains to seen. But the good news for now is that the land of immigrants isn't turning its back on immigrants—it's hunkering down to protect them.