For most of the past few decades, the Democratic Party had a pretty clear stance on immigration. It favored a mix of enforcement (like border security and the deportation of undocumented immigrants who committed serious crimes) and new pro-immigrant laws (like an increase in legal immigration and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people).
In recent years, however, a growing number of immigration advocates and progressive Democrats have become dissatisfied with this combination. They have pointed out that Democrats’ support for tighter border security has not led to the bipartisan compromise that it was supposed to: Republicans continue to block bills that offer a pathway to citizenship.
In response, these progressives and activists have pushed the party to change. Bill Clinton ran for re-election on a platform that said, “We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.” Barack Obama once said, “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked.” President Biden has instead emphasized the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
After taking office, Biden began putting this idea into action. He announced a 100-day halt on deportations (which a judge has blocked). He allowed more migrants — especially children — to enter the country, rather than being detained. And Central American migrants, sensing that the U.S. has become more welcoming, are streaming north in the largest numbers in two decades.
The surge appears to have surprised the Biden administration, as Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute, who ran the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s, told me. Republicans have pounced, accusing Democrats of favoring an “open border.”
Some Democrats are unhappy, too. Biden’s policy “incentivizes droves of people to come, and the only way to slow it down is by changing policy at our doorstep,” Representative Vicente Gonzalez of Texas told The Washington Post. Henry Cuellar, another House Democrat from Texas, said the administration was sending “a terrible message.”
It all stems from the fact that the Democratic Party no longer has a clear policy on immigration.
Trump obscured the debate
While Donald Trump was president, he smoothed over the Democrats’ internal tensions because they could unite in opposition to him. Trump used racist language; Democrats abhorred it. Trump separated families and locked children in cages; Democrats promised to end those policies. Trump said he would build a border wall, paid for by Mexico; Democrats mocked his failure.
With Trump out of office, however, the party faces some hard, unresolved questions, including:
Do Democrats still favor the deportation of anyone? Some activists criticized Obama as the “deporter in chief.” But he focused deportations on only two groups: recent arrivals and immigrants who committed serious crimes.
If Democrats prefer a more lenient policy than Obama’s, it isn’t clear whether they support the deportation of anybody — or whether they instead believe that the humane solution is to allow everybody who manages to enter the U.S., legally or illegally, to remain. The party’s 2020 platform doesn’t mention any conditions in which deportation is acceptable. Biden’s attempt to halt deportations for 100 days highlights the party’s new attitude.
Which migrants should be turned away at the border? And what should happen to them next?
There are no easy answers. One option is to prevent people from entering (as is now the case with many adults traveling alone) — but that can create miserable conditions on Mexico’s side of the border. A second is to detain people in the U.S. while their legal cases are being considered — but detaining children is fraught, and many Democrats consider the jailing of any immigrants akin to Trumpism.
A third option is to admit migrants and order them to appear at a future legal hearing (as is happening with many children and families). The adults must often wear ankle bracelets. Still, the process can take years and raises other thorny issues. Many migrants are not good asylum candidates; they are coming to find work or to be near relatives, neither of which necessarily qualifies them for legal entry.
Often, the administration will still be left to decide whom it is willing to deport.
What’s the progressive policy?
There are potential policy solutions for all of these questions. The U.S. could increase legal immigration. It could build more detention facilities with humane conditions. It could do more to improve conditions in Latin America and to push Mexico to control its own southern border. The Biden administration is pursuing many of these policies.
But if Biden and his aides appear to be less steady on immigration than many other policy areas, there is a reason for that: They are less steady.
Congress appears unlikely to increase legal immigration levels by much. And polls show that while public opinion favors a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, it also favors rigorous border security and the enforcement of existing immigration laws.
I’m not even sure that these views should be described as conservative. Historically, many progressives supported immigration restrictions as a way to keep U.S. wages high. Today, working-class Americans — including many Asian-American, Black and Latino voters — tend to favor more restrictions than progressive Democrats, who are often high-earning professionals, do. This contrast may play a role in Republicans’ recent gains among minority voters.
“Unfortunately, the way the debate plays out too frequently feels like, ‘Everybody should come and the border should be open,’” Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant advocate and former Obama adviser, told me. “And that’s the thing that makes Americans anxious.”
One of the advantages to the Democrats’ old approach to immigration was that it was easy to describe: Be firm at the border, be generous to people who have lived in the U.S. for years. The new approach also has an abiding idea: Be more welcoming to people who want to enter the country. But Democrats still have not figured out the limits to that idea, which has created an early problem for the Biden presidency.
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More: “There’s nothing wrong with open borders,” The Times’s Farhad Manjoo has written. Shikha Dalmia has argued that more immigration will lift economic growth, and Matthew Yglesias has written “One Billion Americans” a book making the case that more immigration will help the U.S. compete with China.
Fewer: “The progressive case for reducing immigration” revolves around higher wages, according to Philip Cafaro. And The Atlantic’s David Frum has suggested that less immigration will reduce the political appeal of nativism.
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