What Do Democrats Want on Immigration?

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The right knows what it wants on immigration. It wants none, preferably, but money for a border wall and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue its reign of terror over immigrant families will do for now. The left, too, knows what it wants: No ICE—or CBP or DHS at all, really—and something close to open borders, if not the thing itself. In the middle is the vast majority of the congressional Democratic Party.

The Democrats have done a pretty remarkable job sticking to their guns during the shutdown, and of unifying around the same issue: Not letting Trump get his way on a wall. The vast majority of Democrats also pay lip service to “border security,” as if the Trump administration hasn’t already made crossing the border legally nearly impossible for migrants, and as if “border security” efforts haven’t encouraged a humanitarian crisis. But beyond this, it’s not exactly clear what the Democrats want in the long run. It’s as if the Democrats’ vision for the future of immigration in America died with the DREAM Act.

Nowhere has this been more better illustrated than in this Politico story from Tuesday, which reports very favorably on a letter being circulated by a group of centrist Democrats (how many, exactly, they never say) led by freshman Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia pleading with Nancy Pelosi to...essentially do what she’s been doing.


Politico reports:

A group of centrist House Democrats, eager to end the shutdown and sick of political posturing, is pressing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to counter President Donald Trump’s immigration proposal with her own potential compromise.

The group, led by Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, is asking the California Democrat to offer Trump a vote on his border wall sometime in February if he signs a bill reopening the federal government, according to a draft copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO.

The letter’s demands (this text is from the letter itself):

  • Once the government is reopened, the Democratic Majority will immediately begin debate in committee on the supplemental discretionary funding request by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for border security. This will allow DHS leadership to explain in detail how the funds will be used and whether this expenditure will have the reported results presented by the President.
  • Guarantee a vote for the supplemental funding request on the House floor by the end of February.
  • As part of the supplemental funding request, members will be able to offer amendments to address the current gaps in protections for Dreamers and those enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and those currently in Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED).

Apart from illustrating just what Politico thinks passes for “political posturing”—anything that doesn’t come directly from the Problem Solvers Caucus, I guess—the letter is particularly notable for how closely it mirrors the situation we’re in already. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have already agreed to talks about the border wall after the government is reopened, and as Politico noted, President Donald Trump already turned down a similar offer floated by Sen. Lindsey Graham last week. (If this isn’t political posturing, what is?)

This lack of an actual long-term strategy, or even a simple goal, might be one reason why the idea to abolish ICE caught fire on the left, to the point where several Senate Democrats weighing 2020 runs have endorsed the slogan. Yet as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—the first Senate Democrat to endorse the idea—showed with details of her proposal in Iowa this weekend, what abolition looks like to her looks like reform to, well, just about everyone else.


The underlying issue for the Democratic Party, however, is that it’s always let the right dictate the debate on immigration, and it has never worked out for them. The last Democratic president was known as the deporter-in-chief and helped build an immigration apparatus ripe for warping by the Trump administration, and the Republicans still called him “weak” on immigration.

So what, then, are the Democrats supposed to do? A good start would be to contest the narrative that there’s an “immigration crisis” at all. There isn’t. If there was, 17 of the 23 counties bordering Mexico likely wouldn’t have voted Democratic in the last election. If there was, undocumented immigrants and legal immigrants would commit crimes at higher rates than people born in America, a charge that has always been leveled at immigrants to America whom nativists deem to be undesirable; they don’t.


Another positive step would be to fully reckon with Obama’s record on immigration. Democratic politicians are always wary of openly criticizing Obama, who’s the most popular living former president, but it’s a fact that the last Democratic president deported more people than any other and then left in place an apparatus with which the racist billionaire who succeeded him has terrorized migrants. Yes, Republicans blocked Obama’s attempts at comprehensive immigration reform and permanent protections for young immigrants; no, this is not an excuse for what he ended up doing instead.

The Democratic Party isn’t a monolith, and the Joe Manchins and Kyrsten Sinemas of the world will gripe about any immigration strategy to the left of Bill Clinton. But aside from immigration being much more popular than it’s been in at least 25 years, we have been in a full-blown humanitarian crisis for years, which has only been exacerbated by the Trump administration. It’s a human rights necessity for the Democrats to get this right, abandon their tired assurances that they want the border to be militarized and inhumane—only a little less than Republicans do—and put forward a positive vision for what the future should look like. Otherwise, they’ll always be one step behind whatever nativist is running the GOP at the time, and they will ensure that they continue to betray the immigrants they say they care about.