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How Democrats Gave Us Trump’s Immigration Nightmare

America’s anti-immigrant, enforcement-first framework has been decades in the making. Can Democrats undo it?

Chuck Kennedy/Getty Images

If you were to choose just one issue that best captured the awfulness of Donald Trump, it would probably be immigration. In the summer of 2015, his racist remarks that Mexican immigrants were rapist and criminals helped jumpstart his presidential campaign; two years later, his rhetorical attacks have only become more graphic, with Trump telling an Ohio crowd in July that “these animals” will target beautiful young girls and “slice them and dice them with a knife.” It is an issue that crosses cultural and economic lines, activating white voters who feel economically and/or demographically threatened by America’s changing racial makeup. And it combines all Trump’s worst aspects: his demagoguery, his bigotry, and his penchant for vilifying society’s most vulnerable people.

Despite the fact that he has been unable to secure funding for his notorious wall on the Mexican border, Trump has taken full advantage of the various tools at his disposal to persecute the undocumented community in the United States. Through an executive order and subsequent memo, Trump has made all undocumented immigrants a priority for deportation, overturning Barack Obama’s policy of focusing on those who have committed serious crimes and recent border-crossers. Another part of the order, which is tied up in the courts, would strip federal funding from sanctuary cities. Trump has also called for the hiring of 15,000 more border patrol and immigration personnel, raising fears that an already emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is going to get more aggressive in its pursuit of undocumented immigrants.

In response, Democrats and pro-immigrant activists are scrambling. “We’re embattled, facing an administration that is trying to arrest and deport as many people as possible,” Frank Sharry of America’s Voice told the New Republic. But if the Trump administration is exceptionally hostile towards immigrants, he is building upon an anti-immigrant, enforcement-first framework that was implemented over the past few decades not only by conservative presidents like George W. Bush, but also by liberal ones like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Trump’s all-out assault on immigrants has cast into sharp relief the many failures of the Democratic Party when it comes immigration policy. “We just handed this really horrible system over to a racist administration,” Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, told me. “It’s pretty terrifying.”

As long as Republicans control both the White House and Congress, there is not much Democrats can do besides continue to play defense and lean on governments that they control at the levels of city and state. But the larger question facing Democrats as they head into the 2018 midterms and beyond is whether they can shift the entire immigration framework past the twin pillars of criminality and security that have governed the approaches of conservative and liberal presidents alike. Defeating Trump in 2020 won’t be enough: Democrats have to progress toward a more humane and more sensible policy on immigration. But do they even know what that looks like?

Our modern immigration framework has its roots in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which was signed into law by Clinton. It instituted many of the hallmarks of the criminalization regime, upping the number of people eligible for deportation while shrinking the opportunities to gain legal status. The law hasn’t aged well in progressive circles: During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton had to denounce her own husband’s policies.

After 9/11, George W. Bush turned immigration into a national security issue. He created the ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, folding them both into the Department of Homeland Security. It was based “on the myth that our country would be more safe if we cracked down on immigration,” Katherine Culliton-González, a senior counsel for the left-leaning think tank Demos, told the New Republic. “ICE became part of this national security agency.”

Obama continued this trajectory. He was dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” for the record number of deportations that occurred during his two terms. And while he managed to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which currently protects around 780,000 undocumented youth who were brought to the country as children, the fate of that program is looking shaky.

As the historian Aviva Chomsky wrote in The Nation, “In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama’s approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist ‘tough on crime’ and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.”

In Obama’s case, the difference was that he was using deportations to prove he was serious about limiting illegal immigration and to entice Republicans to make a deal on a big reform package. As Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, told me, “I remember raising the deportation issue to Obama at the time and he immediately pushed back, saying, ‘I can’t address the policies on deportations when we need Republicans to come to the table to negotiate on reform.’”

Even then, the reform Obama tried to pass was middling at best. It would have taken undocumented immigrants 13 years to gain citizenship. It would have added an insane $46 billion for increased border security. “That was a false option for us,” says Shah of the Detention Watch Network. “It was like, let’s terrorize some communities in order to benefit others.” And in the end, no deal was to be had with a Republican Party that was being torn apart by the vehemently anti-immigrant forces that would one day propel Trump to the Oval Office.

The overall result has been a massive build-up of enforcement, without the corresponding changes to legalization that Democrats want. A report by the Migration Policy Institute found that, in 2012, the federal government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement, 24 percent more than all other principal law enforcement agencies combined.

In this respect, Trump is not an anomaly, but rather the culmination of draconian immigration policies that resulted from decades of over-compromise. As Jiménez says, “What we have seen from Democrats is this false notion and political miscalculation that more aggressive enforcement and criminalization of some members of the community will get you a pathway to citizenship for others.”

Still, some centrist Democrats feel that the party should move backwards instead of forwards. Last week a new political group that includes Democratic mayors, governors, and congressmen was launched to prevent the Democratic Party from moving left. Called New Democracy—a nod to Bill Clinton’s New Democrat campaign—one of the group’s strategies is to “bridge the cultural divide” to combat what it calls “corrosive” identity politics: “On immigration, for example, Democrats should stick to their guns in supporting a humane path to legalization. But we also should take seriously public concerns about the breakdown of public order, the impact of low-skill immigrants on native workers’ jobs and pay.”

But if Obama’s case is any example, Democratic politicians will reap few political rewards from the center and the right by adopting their concerns. And given the virtual reign of terror immigrants are facing under Donald Trump, these compromises have become increasingly unacceptable to progressives. With all undocumented immigrants being fair game, ICE officials have crossed invisible lines to raid schools, churches, and courthouses. Lawyers are playing what The New York Times has called a game of “cat and mouse,” shuffling their immigrant defendants out of courtrooms if they suspect ICE agents are there, waiting to pounce.

While deportations have decreased under Trump compared with Obama (in large part because more undocumented immigrants are being arrested in the interior of the country, rather than near the border) immigrant arrests have increased, including of those who have never committed a crime. Even children who are protected under DACA have been arrested. This has all contributed to a climate of fear: Some children are too afraid to go to school, while other immigrants are even avoiding the doctor

As a result, the worse it gets under Trump, the more the pro-immigrant community will feel justified in demanding more from Democrats. “The community is ready to stand up against them if Democrats think that the old way is the way forward,” says Jiménez of United We Dream. Sharry adds, “The pro-immigrant movement is not interested in a ‘balanced approach’ in which Republicans get a lot of the enforcement they want and Democrats get the legalization they want and they arrive at a deal.”

Democrats may meet harsh resistance even when they attempt to mitigate the damage Trump is threatening to wreak. In the spending deal passed in May to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year, Democrats celebrated a win because they had stripped funding for Trump’s border wall. But they also conceded $1.5 billion in border security funding. 

There is now a campaign led by pro-immigrant groups to push Democrats to defund the deportation machine in Trump’s 2018 budget request, including reducing the funds going to Department of Homeland Security, which controls ICE and CBP. They have also zeroed in on Trump’s request for a drastic increase in immigrant detention beds. “All of these Democrats openly support DACA and are for some form of comprehensive immigration reform, but they’re also quietly, through the appropriations process, supporting funding for things like more detention beds,” says Shah of the Detention Watch Network.

Shah notes that appropriations is a key battleground, since it’s an area that Congress controls and that has a lot of impact on the immigrant community. Representative Luis Gutiérrez, along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, sent a letter advocating for such an approach in March and Senator Kamala Harris, along with other Democratic senators, did the same in June.

The problem is that it might be too late. The hardline immigration wing of the Republican Party is pushing to end DACA, which Trump has not done yet. A group of ten Republican state attorney generals has threatened to file a federal lawsuit over the constitutionality of the program if Trump does not act. As Dara Lind explains at Vox, if DACA is killed, it would put a lot of political pressure on Congress to find some sort of compromise to protect the newly vulnerable Dreamers. Democrats would be negotiating from a position of weakness and would likely be more willing to concede on enforcement policies or even sign on to permanent policy changes. The most draconian measure would be Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue’s RAISE Act, which would create a “merit-based” immigration system that has been criticized for drastically slashing immigration levels and for targeting immigrants of color.

In key policy areas, progressives have set goals, from a $15 federal minimum wage to free college tuition. In health care, for example, the goal is getting everyone insured, whether through single-payer or other means. On a movement level, it gives activists and politicians alike goal posts that have to be reached. On a rhetorical level, it shifts the Overton window towards the idea that everyone in the country deserves comprehensive coverage. But is there an equivalent that could work with immigration reform?

There is the established goal of making sure all 11 million undocumented immigrants in America have a quick and non-punitive pathway to citizenship. Many also agree that we should make it easier to enter the country legally in the first place by reforming our visa system so that it prioritizes separated family members and allows more people to enter both overall and from countries with greater demand. 

But other aspects of a comprehensive package are trickier. Chomsky told me that it’s difficult to apply the health care model to immigration reform because the latter is even more complex: “Immigration is both national and global. It’s not a single issue thing, it’s a multi-issue thing.” Foreign policy, social justice policy, economic policy—they are all tied up with the dynamics of immigration. Even if those 11 million undocumented immigrants could instantly gain full citizenship rights today, the root causes of what forces people to leave their homes in the first place would still lay unaddressed.  

Then there’s the fact that immigration overlaps with another policy area that itself is badly in need of reform. “When you’re looking at the way immigration intersects with the criminal justice system,” Shah says, you are also grappling with the need for a “broader racial justice paradigm shift.”

But there are certain principles that progressives have to agree on. “Decriminalization has to be at the root,” Chomsky says. “We need to create a just domestic immigration policy that begins from the perspective that all people have certain inalienable rights.” This includes treating the vast bulk of immigrants as job-seekers and potential contributors to society, not suspected felons or terrorist threats.

Take, for example, the fact that ICE has started to target parents who have brought their children over the border. In doing so, they are taking advantage of the Democratic position that these children came to the U.S. through “no fault of their own,” implying that the fault does lie with someone. The Trump administration merely assigns that fault to their parents. Dividing immigrants between good ones and bad ones—or as Obama put it, “felons, not families”—has played right into the criminalization narrative.

On the deportation side, Democrats should seek to dramatically scale down the ICE’s activities. On the access side, what most activists want is not a set quota of immigrants allowed into the country, but a flexible system that is sensitive to the economy’s needs—a system that takes into account worker rights, family reunification, and the needs of employers.

For undocumented immigrants, the next few years will be a desperate battle to survive. (As Sharry dryly put it, “Let’s see if there’s a population of undocumented immigrants here to be legalized, before we reengage on immigration reform.”) But if someone like Trump can be elected, immigrants in this country will never be safe unless Congress passes real reform, one that dismantles our current deportation and detention regime. Trump might be an exceptionally racist president, but he is working with the tools that his predecessors gave him.