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Democrats Can Win on Immigration

As Trump continues to stoke fear, 2020 presidential contenders have the opportunity to offer policy.

Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

We already know the kind of campaign Donald Trump will run in 2020. Sure, there will be improvisational flourishes based on who ultimately prevails from the Democrat’s battle royal—stale riffs on Joe Biden’s intelligence, Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry, or Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism. But facing tough elections, Trump returns to immigration, the issue that won him the Republican primary and, perhaps, the presidency. The final months of the 2020 election will undoubtedly feature a cavalcade of offensive, racist, and purely fictional ads about how undocumented immigrants are menacing innocent Americans, and dozens of stump speeches touting the “wall,” with Trump still insisting it’s being built.

The president will be banking on the current conventional wisdom, which maintains that immigration is a weak spot for Democrats. Despite Trump’s divisive appeals, recent polling has suggested that voters believe that Democrats politicize the issue about as much as the president does. That is, to some extent, a strange conclusion, given that Democratic candidates have shied away from making immigration a campaign centerpiece, and have instead focused so far on other issues. The Democrats’ plans, to the extent they have been surfaced, often feel like kinder takes on hardline Republican positions: They hold on to their commitment to “border security” like a shield in an attempt to weather, but never really counter, GOP attacks.

But there are signs that immigration may not be the soft, white underbelly for Democrats that headlines and talking heads would have us believe. A Washington Post-ABC poll released Tuesday suggests that voters are still allergic to Trump’s draconian approach—the wall remains extremely unpopular, with two voters opposing it for every one who supports it. Additionally, the survey demonstrates an openness to immigration proposals that move beyond  “securing” (and presumably further militarizing) the border. A number of presidential candidates—Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and, most significantly, Julián Castro—have embraced the issue, making it clear that the days of Democrats trying to change the subject whenever immigration comes up may be coming to an end.

The public dialogue on immigration tends to be a mess, albeit a mess that helps explain the inertia that has enveloped policymaking. Broadly speaking, polls show Americans supporting some version of the grand bargain that the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” almost made in 2013 (and which still gets teased by some Democrats)—more “border security” coupled with a “path to citizenship.” A February Gallup poll found that 81 percent favored a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants and that 75 percent supported hiring “significantly more” agents to patrol the border, although nearly two-thirds opposed the construction of a wall.

But a vocal minority who opposes a path to citizenship has been able to block any movement on policy, thanks in part to their overrepresentation in conservative media. An April Gallup survey found just twenty-one percent viewed immigration as the most important issue in the country. The Post-ABC poll, meanwhile, found that the number of voters of all stripes concerned about the border is growing. Fifty-six percent of Republicans, 35 percent of independents, and 24 percent of Democrats—up from just 7 percent in January—described “the situation with illegal immigration at the US-Mexico border” as a “crisis.”

Those numbers raise other questions: It’s not clear, for instance, if the “crisis” some see is being viewed as a humanitarian crisis, and the decision by poll writers to use the term “illegal immigration” could influence answers. Despite voters preference for “border security,” however, these data points suggest Democrats have an opportunity to reframe the immigration debate.

Forty-two percent of voters say that Trump’s handling of immigration makes them less likely to vote for him in 2020—an eight point advantage over those who say it makes them more likely to support his reelection bid. The fact that record numbers of families are approaching the border to seek asylum is a refutation of Trump’s core argument, that beefing up border security measures, empowering ICE, and building a wall—as well as separating immigrant families and calling for new fees for asylum seekers, which he did earlier this week—will discourage people from seeking asylum or attempting to enter the country without papers. Trump and his most rabid supporters will always argue that they can never truly fail, that the surge in immigrants only proves the need for more punitive efforts. But the widespread opposition to the wall—as well as other factors, like the record number of Americans saying that immigration is a “good thing” and pluralities that oppose the administration’s hard-line approach—suggest that Trump may not have the vice-like grip on the immigration debate that some assume he has. 

The emerging view that there is some sort of crisis at the border, combined with the general disdain for Trump’s approach, presents an opportunity—not only to reframe the immigration debate, but to remake America’s immigration infrastructure. Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, has the most comprehensive and, arguably, interesting immigration platform of any of the presidential candidates, though he’s currently struggling to gain traction. His “People First” platform, as Vox’s Dara Lind wrote, “seeks to unravel the post-9/11 immigration enforcement system—which has made it legally riskier than ever to live in the US as an unauthorized immigrant.” It provides a path to citizenship, reduces immigration detention, and disperses most of ICE’s powers to other agencies. Castro’s plan would also decriminalize crossing the border illegally, a reversal of 90 years of precedent. But overall, the plan would seek to focus immigration enforcement on the most serious cases, an important change from the current detention system.

Cory Booker, meanwhile, reintroduced a bill on Tuesday that would upend the current system of mandatory detention, and put the burden of proof on the government when it comes to detaining and removing undocumented immigrants. Beto O’Rourke has made undocumented immigrants a focal point of his proposal to address income inequality. “Millions live in the shadows, working some of the toughest jobs.... Kept in modern-day bondage, their immigration status is used as leverage to keep them down,” he told an Iowa town hall late last month. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, have called for ICE to be restructured and replaced, respectively.

And many Democrats acknowledge their approach to immigration will also have to include foreign policy and an immediate end to American support for violent and corrupt Central American countries that are, in the words of The Nation’s Jeff Faux, “driving immigrants to our doorstep.”

These policies, if embraced, could counteract Trump’s relentless demonization of immigrants—especially as his rhetoric and actions accelerate as elections draw nearer. In the fall of 2018, Trump pushed Republicans to embrace a midterm strategy focused on a migrant “caravan” that was winding its way toward the southern border, and House Republicans were rewarded with a historic defeat. While Trump’s strategy may have helped Republicans hold on to a handful of Senate seats, Democrats should nonetheless be heartened by the GOP’s larger failure. Trump may have spent his entire political career trying to stoke xenophobic fear, but recent polling shows Democrats have little reason to be afraid.