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Crossing Over

The new Democratic consensus on immigration sucks
A portrait of President Biden in sunglasses. Behind him, the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

In February, Politico’s chief Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, sat down with Democratic senator Chris Murphy to talk about his recent, resounding failure. Months earlier, the self-described “progressive” had been given the unenviable task of crafting the first draft of a bipartisan immigration reform bill along with two other senators: Kyrsten Sinema, an Independent, and James Lankford, a Republican. Recognizing that the American public was “demanding . . . some new tough laws,” Murphy and his colleagues set about giving the people what they claimed to want: immigration reform so tough even Senator Bob Menendez, an avatar of political virtue, characterized it as “an enforcement wish list from the Trump administration” that “directly clash[es] with the most basic tenets of our asylum system.”

Legislators bundled the immigration bill with a massive military aid package, which promised tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The military aid—specifically to Ukraine—proved to be contentious, but the immigration provisions appeared, at least briefly, as though they might garner enough support to pass through a bitterly divided Congress. But then the Republicans who’d backed the bill abruptly changed course in early February, bowing to former president Donald Trump, who was loath to hand a legislative victory to President Biden on a hot-button issue just months before the election. “I’ve never seen an about-face like this in the twenty-plus years I’ve been in politics,” lamented Murphy to Politico, who sounded as if he was on the verge of tears.

The impulse to be tough, strong, and on the whole more “realistic” about the state of immigration in the United States represents the Democratic Party leadership’s new consensus on the issue, which is to say, its absolute capitulation to the right. The bipartisan immigration bill was a suite of policies that would’ve been a fantasy of a right-wing presidency, the sort of thing that would have mobilized mass protest had it been proposed during the Trump administration. It represents a deep failure of politics and political imagination, a failure that can be traced back to the Democrats’ history of gutless equivocation on the issue. Now, with a presidential election looming, the party apparently sees no choice but to go on offense against immigrants and migrants—a tactic unlikely to win against a conservative movement out for blood.

Democrats are brandishing a reactionary, hardline program cribbed from their friends across the aisle.

The bill would have transformed the American immigration system categorically for the worse. To start, it would have annihilated the existing asylum process—if not explicitly, then functionally. If the average number of “encounters” per day at the border hit four thousand, the president would have had the unilateral authority to shut down the border to asylum seekers, and once the average hit five thousand, a “shutdown” would be mandated. This cap is so regularly breached—in December, for example, there was a daily average of eight thousand “encounters”—that it seemed specifically designed to trigger a state of perpetual emergency authority. This would mean that nearly every person caught crossing the border, regardless of their potential asylum status, would have been immediately deported, with only rare exceptions.

The remaining group of individuals who would have qualified to file asylum claims would have been required to supply even more proof supporting their claim. The bill would have shifted significant caseloads out of immigration courts and to newly hired asylum officers, apparently in an effort to deal with the significant backlog of asylum cases that haven’t yet been heard. The redirection of asylum cases away from the adversarial system of the courts to the discretion of asylum officers could endanger refugees by making legitimate claims to asylum harder to prove. It would also, according to one policy watchdog, have been a flagrant violation of due process. The ACLU alleges the bill would have “fundamentally changed our country’s core protections for people seeking safety” and “permanently undermined our moral standing in the world, and ensured the return of people to danger or even death”—a damning indictment from an organization far from the fringes of American politics.

The decimation of asylum was far from the bill’s only reprehensible component, which was littered with provisions that would have transformed our nation’s border into an even more menacing dystopia. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, would have received nearly $7 billion in emergency cash, an eyebrow-raising number for an agency whose yearly budget is almost $20 billion. Over $720 million of that would have gone toward hiring more Border Patrol agents, as well as additional overtime pay for existing agents—a nice windfall for some of the most odious officers of American law enforcement. In short, the bill wouldn’t have “fixed” anything; it would have simply codified a significantly crueler status quo.

In a sign of how far to the right our politics have shifted, President Biden, who campaigned in 2020 on humane immigration reform and against Trump-era policy at the border, waxed poetic about the draconian wonders of the bipartisan bill during the State of the Union last month. While he promised not to “demonize immigrants,” he seemed elated by the prospect of being able to deport them promptly and without due process—if only the “toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen” had been allowed to become law.

For years, mainstream liberal politicians haven’t mustered a meaningful response to the Republicans’ negative caricatures of immigration, which have been relentlessly hammered into the popular consciousness by the conservative political movement and its hulking media apparatus. In fact, as a party, Democratic policy and rhetoric on immigration has shifted significantly to the right over the last decade, even as advocates have incessantly begged them to tack in the opposite direction. Now Democrats are brandishing a reactionary, hardline program cribbed from their friends across the aisle.

To be sure, there’s a longer tradition of bipartisan nativist exclusion that is essential in considering the Democrats’ current posture on immigration—we need not look further than President Obama himself, who, as the “Deporter-in-Chief,” deported more people than his Republican successor, even as he enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But as we reflect on the current administration, the especially pernicious influence of “popularism” comes to the fore.

This is an idea best captured in an October 2021 essay by Ezra Klein in the New York Times. Klein’s subject was a young politico named David Shor, a moppy-haired, data-savvy consultant devoted to the idea that Democrats should lead their campaigns talking about the most popular things, and they should avoid talking about issues that may risk alienating key voters. Shor, who identifies as a socialist, describes a commitment to a multi-racial, cross-class Democratic Party. Yet implicit within Shor’s data-addled logic is that the key demographic for Democrats are the archetypal white voters, who will comprise the slim margins of victory—or defeat—in critical battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And if there’s one thing Shor advised against talking too much about, it was immigration.

Despite an abundance of evidence that this data-as-Holy-Grail strategy is not foolproof, Shor and his uninspiring coterie of data nerds and “effective altruists” have enjoyed incredible access to the power centers of Democratic Party politics. Shor himself is reported to have held court with Biden aides. In March 2021, President Obama tweeted out praise for the then twenty-nine-year-old’s work; in May of that same year, a report in Politico described Shor as “one of the most in-demand data analysts in the country.” Shor himself stated that his work is indebted to the president himself: “I like to joke that I feel like I’ve stolen my ideas from Joe Biden much, much, much more than the other way around.”

Whether this sentiment is true—or is just blatant flattery—is unimportant. It’s worth considering how ambivalence on immigration both belies Shor’s stated political commitments, and hinders the possibility of the multi-racial, cross-class left political movement he purports to desire. What is most important, however, is that the popularist brand of politics serves as an essential validator to the present White House, one which both retroactively justifies the decisions of the present administration, while also grounding its more conservative aspirations. So when he voices apprehension about the role of immigration in campaign messaging, which he has consistently done since gaining a public platform in 2020, it’s likely that top Democrats were listening because the White House spent most of the last three years relatively mum on the matter, even as they quietly continued many Trump-era policies at the border—until pressure mounted from Democratic mayors decrying the influx of migrants into their cities. Aghast at the polls, the Democrats agreed that there was a “crisis,” and something had to be done.

Hence the immigration bill, which Biden vowed in February would “make our country safer, make our border more secure, treat people fairly . . . consistent with our values as a nation,” an Orwellian mischaracterization. Once Speaker Mike Johnson announced that the bill was dead on arrival in the House, Democrats launched an all-out offensive—having determined that immigration was worth talking about, and loudly. But the angle that they’ve chosen is peculiar, if unsurprising: they’re branding themselves as the champions of border security, while claiming that their Republican counterparts are, in fact, the weak ones.

It’s a sentiment unsubtly conveyed by a February ad produced by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the official Democratic Party organization that handles Senate campaigns. The ad, which ran in Florida and Texas, shows images of migrants climbing over walls, while interspersing clips from talk shows disparaging Republicans for playing politics with the border and abandoning a real crisis affecting “blue cities” and “blue states.” In case the message needed clarification, the ad’s last few seconds clear up any ambiguity, intoning that “Senate Republicans won’t secure the border . . . They won’t keep us safe.” This messaging is clearly an attempt to reclaim some ground on Biden’s perceived reputation on immigration—a poll in February had the president’s approval rating for handling immigration at the Mexican border at 18 percent, while another put it at 28 percent. Maybe, the prevailing logic goes, if the Democrats adopt the rhetoric of the right and project “strength” at the border, they might be able to regain voters’ trust on what is, in the eyes of millions of voters who’ve been told as such, the most pressing issue affecting our country presently. 

That large swaths of the public now see immigration as a key issue, one that Democrats are ill-equipped to handle, is a serious problem, especially in the run-up to a presidential election that remains, according to many polls, in a dead heat. But it was not inevitable: it’s the product of the right’s effective weaponization of the issue as liberals stood timidly to the side, murmuring about “common sense” reform. The Democrats fell right into the right’s trap. Now, mainstream Democrats are more hesitant to make mention of pathways to citizenship or permanent residency for the millions of undocumented immigrants who have made the United States their home; the Biden administration appears unwilling to stand up to Republicans, such as Texas governor Greg Abbott, to defend humane treatment for asylum-seekers at the border; even DACA recipients, long held as the epitome of the “good immigrant” aren’t to receive any resolution to their ever-precarious status.

The Democrats’ shift in messaging risks permanently reshaping the consensus on the issue.

This strategy is dubious: Will the average “key voter” really buy the argument that Biden is stronger on the border than Trump, who’s premised his entire political career on the threat posed by immigrants “invading” the country? And is “strength” above all else even a plausible solution to a complex problem? The Democrats’ shift in messaging risks permanently reshaping the consensus on the issue. Even as they’ve generally downplayed immigration as a priority in recent years, Democrats have evinced, at least in their rhetoric, a commitment to a humane system of immigration. Now, they’re jettisoning even that in a reactionary arms race of xenophobic, anti-immigrant policymaking—a race that they’re bound to lose.

Democrats cannot outflank Republicans on immigration from the right, an issue that serves an incredibly useful function for the conservative political movement—it’s a panacea to agitate any number of anxieties among their base. It’s ubiquitous and malleable, even as it’s contradictory: immigrants can be lazy leeches on the social system, while at the same time snatching up American jobs; migrant caravans are allegedly bringing fentanyl across the border, despite that about 90 percent of fentanyl is seized at legal ports of entry (and over half of that is trafficked by U.S. citizens). And most enduringly, immigrants threaten to reshape the demographics of the United States; they are “poisoning the blood” of the country, as Trump put it recently.

The conservative media machine has steadily beamed such horror stories into tens of millions of Americans’ homes, of “illegal” immigrants, every single night for the last decade. Republican politicians have ceaselessly preached the horrors befalling the United States, painting a terrifying portrait of a nation slowly being overtaken by foreigners with the help of lawless Democrats. It’s faced no meaningful resistance from any outpost of liberal political power; often, outlets like CNN and the New York Times have been more than happy to fan the flames.

Meanwhile, Trump, all but certainly the Republican nominee, has outlined chilling plans for a second administration. A November dispatch from the Times describes the former president’s immigration policy ambitions in appalling detail: they involve deputizing the National Guard to conduct mass deportations and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants in makeshift detention camps. These schemes would be politically and legally contentious, and would inevitably provoke widespread protest. Given how far to the right the Democrats have come on the issue, it’s not clear what they could reasonably contest, other than perhaps the most extreme edges of such a plan—as they did with Trump’s family separation policy. The bipartisan bill is now the baseline from which future immigration policy will likely be negotiated.

To the extent that a “crisis” at the border actually exists, it is one with deeper causes—and in a saner world, that might generate some reflections on the political and economic conditions destabilizing the countries from which these migrants are coming. But this is wishful thinking. Save for a toothless report issued in the early days of the Biden administration, which maps a strategy to combat root causes in painfully vague terms (and reads as if it were concocted by a team of entry-level State Department grunts), there have been few concrete steps taken to alleviate the material conditions incentivizing migration into the United States. Predictably, the bipartisan immigration bill made no mention of root causes, let alone any investments—even as Congress prepared to give away billions of dollars to the Israeli government to continue its genocide in Gaza.

Whether or not Donald Trump is able to terrorize immigrants as president once more, the prognosis for American immigration policy looks grim. If the Biden administration follows its present course, a second term may entail massive, unprecedented crackdowns. The Democratic Party has some important voices willing to lay out a legitimate alternative, but barring a major paradigm shift on the issue, they will remain marginal. The bipartisan bill may have marked the end of a previous liberal consensus on immigration. It seems like the Democrats are planning to double down on their hard right turn—and keep driving.