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Democrats are taking a hard line on immigration — from the left

Democrats are not here to compromise on immigration.

Don’t be fooled by the much-trumpeted “deal” that President Donald Trump reportedly struck with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to address the status of the 690,000 immigrants who will soon begin to lose their deportation protections as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program winds down. That deal is all but dead, if it ever lived to begin with. It’s been replaced by a hardline White House wish list — and by Democrats’ calls for Congress to pass a “clean DREAM Act” that would legalize DACA recipients without increasing immigration enforcement in return.

The thing is, about 10 years ago, many Democrats — including, notably, Schumer — would have championed many of the Trump administration’s enforcement proposals, from increased local cooperation with immigration enforcement to a physical barrier on the US/Mexico border, even if they weren’t part of a deal to legalize unauthorized immigrants. And they’d certainly accept them, happily, alongside legalization.

So why do they oppose them now?

Democrats have come to defer to organized immigration activists in a way they didn’t 10 years ago, or even during the early years of the Obama administration. Thanks in part to a change of strategy by major labor unions, whose success in organizing immigrant-heavy professions like the hospitality industry rather than relying on its traditional manufacturing base, this important component of the Democratic base has wholly embraced the idea of comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, the party has moved substantially to the left on the issue of immigration enforcement.

For Democrats, it’s been a simple calculus. Democrats’ attempts at “tough love” centrism didn’t win them any credit across the aisle, while an increasingly empowered immigrant-rights movement started calling them to task for the adverse consequences of enforcement policies. Democrats learned to ignore the critics on the right they couldn’t please, and embrace the critics on the left who they could.

The Democratic base moved left on immigration — and the way Democrats related to the base changed, too

It’s easy to forget in the Trump era, but immigration has only been a partisan issue for the past decade or so. Traditionally, it split both parties. Republicans were torn between the racialized populism they’ve leaned into under Trump and business’s desire to increase the immigrant workforce; Democrats were split between progressive and racial-justice activists and labor — which was worried about immigrants undercutting native workers, and therefore eager to see laws enforced against unauthorized immigrants and reticent to support any policy that might encourage them to stay.

But as American workers became increasingly deunionized in the late 20th century, major labor unions started paying less attention to protecting the (few) workers they currently had, and started paying attention to getting more workers unionized. From that perspective, immigrant workers — especially immigrants prone to exploitation because they were unauthorized — were a prime asset.

With labor unions flipping to support unauthorized immigrants, there were no longer institutional interests within the Democratic Party that were interested in taking a more hawkish immigration line. Democrats continued to worry about turning off working-class white voters (the voters who were no longer being represented by unions in the workplace, and who might be more culturally conservative as well) by going too far on immigration. But without any institution promising to turn them out if Democrats did cater to those views, that concern was increasingly abstract.

At the same time, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Democrats started realizing that there was a huge upside in turning out (reliably Democratic) black voters at high rates, and in winning big shares of the rapidly growing Latino and Asian-American votes.

On the most basic level, that meant that labor’s institutional pressure on Democrats to moderate on immigration dissipated, just as Latinos, the new demographic force encouraging them to embrace immigrant rights, became more powerful. But the Democrats’ efforts to brand themselves as the party of the demographic future also created a new opportunity for racial-justice advocates to pressure Democrats from the left — challenging them not just to be better than Republicans, but to affirmatively deserve the votes of communities that could just as easily not turn out.

The institutions that Democrats were used to working with to represent identity groups — the NAACP as a mediator for African-Americans, NCLR as a mediator for Latinos, the Human Rights Campaign as a mediator for the LGBT community — weren’t used to making such aggressive demands of their allies. But the activists were. And over the course of the Obama era, it began to be the activists who set the agenda for the party.

Democrats tried to own the “tough but fair” center on immigration. It didn’t work.

Democrats’ policy priority on immigration, since 2008, has been to allow the millions of unauthorized immigrants who’ve become integrated into American communities (often after a decade or more of living in the United States) to get legal status and ultimately citizenship.

That hasn’t changed. What’s changed has been their perspective on whether amping up immigration enforcement, both near the US border and deeper within the country, helps that goal or hurts it.

“Comprehensive immigration reform” proposals have typically amped up both border and interior enforcement while legalizing most current unauthorized immigrants. To many Democrats — especially Schumer, a leading voice of this strategy — this wasn’t just an acceptable compromise, it was actually ideal. Democrats wanted to end unauthorized immigration; that meant both acknowledging that the population currently settled in the US wasn’t going to leave, and making it as hard as possible for future unauthorized immigrants to come to or work in the US.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, and Democrats had unified control of the federal government, the centrist logic of immigration reform morphed into a political strategy. With Democrats in charge of the federal government for the first time since 9/11, the party (and the Obama administration) saw a chance to dispel the idea that Democrats were “soft” on security, including unauthorized immigration. Once Democrats had proven they could be trusted to enforce immigration law, they’d assuage the fears that tended to thwart any “amnesty” pushes — among both the American public, and congressional Republicans.

So the Obama administration continued the expansion of immigration enforcement that began under George W. Bush. They set deportation records; turned a database pilot program into a near-nationwide system to flag unauthorized immigrants checked into jails for ICE pickup, and touted statistics showing that a majority of deportees were “criminal aliens”; and bragged routinely about how their efforts to deport and prosecute immigrants caught crossing the US/Mexico border were making the border “more secure than ever before.”

It did not work at all.

Immigration hawks pooh-poohed the deportation records, pointing out that they counted people who’d been caught at the border and would have simply been returned under 20th-century immigration policy (a change that was made under George W. Bush, ironically in response to immigration hawks). The fact that net unauthorized migration was flat or negative through the early years of the Obama presidency (and net unauthorized migration from Mexico was flat throughout his presidency) got ignored, except to point out that fewer immigrants were being returned to their home countries by Border Patrol agents.

The disputes weren’t really about a particular border strategy that immigration hawks wanted the federal government to pursue. They were rooted in a skepticism that the Obama administration could possibly be “tough” on immigration enforcement. Because immigration hawks saw that President Obama and his officials ultimately wanted to legalize unauthorized immigrants, that made it impossible to trust the promises that they were trying harder than ever to enforce the law now.

Democrats had hoped to build their reputation for responsible immigration enforcement on distinguishing between current unauthorized immigrants and future ones, between “felons” and “families.” But to immigration hawks, those distinctions didn’t naturally exist — and Democrats’ attempts to impose them just looked like so much spin.

Escalating immigration enforcement can’t be all that precisely targeted

The immigration hawks were partly right: On the ground, those distinctions looked a lot blurrier than they did in Democrats’ rhetoric. But what that meant, as often as not, was that the policies the Obama administration championed to keep out or go after “bad” immigrants ended up catching the people Obama considered “good” ones.

The Obama administration’s efforts to target “felons, not families” led it to expand its reliance on local law enforcement — picking up people who were booked into jails before or after they were convicted of crimes. That created an incentive for local law-enforcement officers who wanted to go after unauthorized immigrants to focus on apprehending people who might turn out to be unauthorized when they went through an ICE database.

“People booked into jail” is a much broader net than “felons.” For one thing, for unauthorized immigrants, everything from working (with a made-up Social Security Number that turns out to belong to someone else) to driving (in states that don’t permit unauthorized immigrants to get licenses) can be a crime.

More fundamentally, the “criminal alien” label tarred immigrants who were arrested and deported for possessing small amounts of marijuana, or selling phone cards out of their homes, alongside (and in much greater quantity than) murderers and rapists. Not all Democrats agreed on where the line between “good” and “bad” immigrant ought to be drawn, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t congruent with the line between “criminal” and “noncriminal” aliens.

At the same time, the continued buildup of Border Patrol personnel didn’t just affect immigrants trying to come into the US — it affected everyone living within the 100-mile zone under Border Patrol authority. Border communities in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas complained of the “militarization” of the border and the abuses of Border Patrol agents (even when those abuses were against Mexican citizens on the other side of the fence).

Democrats promised legalization soon, while backing enforcement now. Immigrants and local activists saw that the latter was eating away at the promise of the former. Every person deported was someone who might have been legalized if immigration reform had already passed. Every person picked up by ICE now might be forfeiting their chance to get included in a legalization bill later.


immigration protesters

A letter written to “the immigrant rights movement” at the beginning of 2014 by many individual activists drove the point home: While Congress had failed to pass immigration reform in 2013, “we saw ICE taking parents while working, and then labeling them as felons.”

“As leaders,” the letter said, “we need to have the humility to reassess our strategy and make changes when something is not working.”

On the ground, the very things that Democrats thought were cost-free political tradeoffs — marginalizing “criminals” because they knew most unauthorized immigrants weren’t public safety threats, increasing enforcement against future immigrants to create political space for current ones — had consequences for the people they were trying to help. And many of the activists who saw that were uninterested in cutting Democrats any slack.

Democrats’ immigration position has become dictated by activists in a way Democrats don’t usually go along with

With the Obama administration running the enforcement machine at full blast, establishment Latino and immigration groups tempered their criticism — they needed to save their political capital with the White House to get it to push for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But that calculus didn’t apply to local and regional groups focused on limiting enforcement on the ground. And it didn’t apply to new groups that hadn’t been around long enough to be “establishment” — including the groups led by unauthorized immigrants themselves, most of whom were part of a generation of young adults who had been raised in the US without status: the DREAMers.

DREAMers became a prominent voice in the immigrant-rights movement in 2010, when they successfully pressured Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring a bill to legalize them up for a vote after negotiations over comprehensive reform had stalled.

But what distinguished them from the rest of the immigrant-rights movement wasn’t that they were pushing for a DREAM Act rather than comprehensive reform (something that had been done before and that many organizations were willing to try again). It’s that they were willing to use confrontational tactics against Democrats, including sit-ins in Senate offices, to bring attention to their cause.

They were outside activists, not inside operators, and they succeeded in winning Democrats over.

The willingness to confront Democrats reflected a worldview that didn’t care as much about “reassuring” Republicans about the “rule of law.” Immigration activists chafed at centrist lines about “felons, not families” — not only because they were likely to know people who counted as both under the Obama administration’s enforcement regime, but because they didn’t see an upside to that kind of both-sides rhetoric.

The same pattern ultimately resulted in DACA in 2012: DREAMers led a public activist push that often embarrassed Democrats (in this case the White House), but ended up grinding them down. On the local level — often led not by DREAMers, but by immigrant groups like the National Day Laborers Organizing Network — it resulted in the birth of the “sanctuary cities” push to limit local cooperation with ICE, which picked up steam during Obama’s first term. And it resulted in the attempts to expand deferred action for immigrants in 2014 — in which DREAMers played a leading role even though (in many cases) they themselves were no longer at risk of deportation.

Within the immigration-reform debate, DREAMers aren’t an interest group fighting for their own small piece of a much bigger discussion. They’ve functioned as an activist vanguard.


DREAMer arrested

Mark Abramson/the Washington Post via Getty

Obviously, this is an overgeneralization — not all DREAMers are involved in politics, and those who are run the gamut from relative insiders who worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign to purists who are skeptical of the “nonprofit-industrial complex.” But the leading DREAMer organization, United We DREAM, which has become perhaps the single most influential group in the immigrant-rights movement, remains a distinctly progressive organization — it takes pride in taking its agenda from local member groups in regular “convenings,” centers the people affected by policy in decisionmaking as well as messaging, and is part of the progressive trend of organizations moving from single-issue focuses to broader attention toward social and racial justice.

They are, in other words, the kind of progressive group that the Democratic establishment is traditionally uneasy with. But over the past half-decade or so, the party has gotten more comfortable talking about race and racial justice, and less concerned with turning off moderate white voters who think that terms like “undocumented immigrant” are euphemistic.

The Democratic shift on immigration helped lead the way for a broader rapprochement with the progressive movement — but its roots were in a simple political truth. Democrats didn’t lose much with centrists or conservatives by abandoning a commitment to “tough but fair” immigration enforcement, because they didn’t get much credit from those groups to begin with. But when they acceded to the demands of critics on the left, they were greeted with enthusiastic Latino support.

Any Democratic concession on enforcement will upset their base

Some center-right pundits have looked at this shift and seen a Democratic Party that supports open borders — or at least de facto open borders, in which immigration laws exist but are barely ever enforced.

That’s not exactly true. National Democrats aren’t calling for the abolition of immigration laws, and the changes they want to make to future immigration aren’t radically different in scope from what many Republicans would favor (though the types of immigrants they’d want to let in are different).

Furthermore, you could argue that President Trump makes it easy for Democrats. Not only is the party no longer responsible for the actions of DHS, but they’re facing a president who’s defined himself by his hardline immigration stance. The Democratic base wants to see resistance to a president they see as dangerous and possibly illegitimate — and when it comes to immigration, Democrats are happy to comply. This is a large part of why Schumer and Pelosi have made a “border wall” their leading dealbreaker in the DACA negotiations; they don’t want to give the president a victory, however small or symbolic, on such a huge campaign promise.

But it’s certainly true that Democrats in 2017, in general, tend to criticize the use of immigration enforcement, and tend to side with those accused of violating immigration law, as a broad matter of principle beyond opposing the particular actions of the administration.

This goes beyond simply representing members of their own communities (and potential electoral constituencies). The activist defense of immigrants caught crossing the border, especially the Central American children and families that now make up a large share of people entering the US without papers, has led Democrats to take a much firmer stance in defending them as humanitarian victims who deserve the chance to seek and receive asylum in the US.

There still are some immigrants being deported after committing serious crimes, and border-crossers who aren’t fleeing gang violence. But Democrats don’t lift up those cases to draw a sharp line of distinction between them and the left. Issuing a press release applauding ICE for deporting gang members doesn’t do anything for a Democratic office-holder; appearing at a rally to protest the detention of a mother arrested at her ICE check-in does.

More broadly, Democrats are no longer as willing to attack “illegal immigration” as a fundamental problem anymore.

That rhetoric, too, came in part from DREAMers, who didn’t like being talked about as victims of their parents’ crimes who came to the US “through no fault of their own.” Instead they’ve portrayed their parents as “the original DREAMers” — a line that Nancy Pelosi followed in September when she said that DACA recipients’ parents “did a great thing” in bringing their children to the US.

And DREAMer activists have been wary of drawing a sharp dividing line between the people coming over now, and the people their parents were then.

So even policies that might be more symbolic than impactful — like building more physical barriers on the US/Mexico border and calling them a “wall” — end up being offensive. They express a view of immigrants as people to be kept out that activists aren’t comfortable with.

But such rhetoric doesn’t create much room for any compromise that expands immigration enforcement.

Activists are pushing for a “clean” DREAM Act — citizenship for DACA recipients with no enforcement tradeoffs. At the moment, Democrats are too.

But there are almost certainly some concessions that Schumer and Pelosi would be prepared to make, including paying more money for border security or even detention facilities. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the leading Senate champion of the DREAM Act, said that it would be “naive” to expect a DACA bill to pass without any border security provisions.

They would be doing so over the complaints of the activists.

DREAMers probably won’t try to scuttle a deal on immigration because the enforcement tradeoffs were too steep. But the reason that’s probable is because Schumer and Pelosi are unlikely to strike a deal with steep enforcement tradeoffs to begin with. The activists might not get everything they want, but they’ve already set the terms with which Democrats approach the debate — for the simple reason that they’re the ones who credit Democrats for doing what they want.


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Jack Handy

Jack Handy

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