Democrats Shouldn’t Miss This Opening on Immigration. Trump Won’t

by Dane Stangler

To no one’s surprise, Stephen Miller wants to make President Trump’s temporary suspension of immigration permanent. On April 22nd, in a very belated — and plainly cynical — response to the COVID-19 crisis, the president signed an executive order restricting the issuance of new green cards.

The move was mostly symbolic: the crisis has already halted many forms of immigration. Court proceedings and visa processing are on hold; travel restrictions have been in place for some time. Miller, chief White House nativist, is already saying that the order is a wedge to put in place permanent immigration restrictions, to “turn off the faucet of new immigrant labor.”

Politically, the restrictions are fairly deft and put Democrats in a bind. What is former vice-president Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, supposed to say? What are any Democratic candidates for Senate supposed to say? They can criticize the restrictions all they want but, so far, Trump’s immigration “pause” appears to have support.

In a new poll from the Washington Post and University of Maryland, two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said they supported the president’s suspension. Support was predictably split by party affiliation, with 83 percent of Republicans approving of the policy. Yet 67 percent of independents and 49 percent of Democrats also supported the restrictions.

Any calls by Democrats to reopen the borders will be fairly unpopular. They would be met with inflammatory social media activity. That is not a reason to refrain from criticizing the president — but Democrats need to have a smart alternative at hand. This alternative must grapple with the complications of immigration policy while also demonstrating a vision of a functioning immigration system. Moral outrage at the president is warranted, but if it isn’t accompanied by something constructive, Democrats will be left vulnerable to accusations that they simply want to throw open the borders.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, voters were concerned. In a poll conducted for PPI by Expedition Strategies in February among Midwest voters, immigration emerged as the second most important issue, behind only health care. It ranked higher than jobs and wages, national security, and taxes. One-fifth of swing voters placed immigration at the top of their priority list. And, fully one-third of white men with less than a college degree cited immigration as the most important issue.

These findings are notable because the poll focused on the three “blue firewall” states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It’s in these states where the Democratic Party wants to improve on the 2016 election results, especially by flipping Obama-Trump voters. Within that group of voters, by the way, 15 percent cited immigration as the most important issue — behind health care, but ahead of everything else.

If the poll were taken today, health care would likely remain the top issue, with jobs a close second. Yet the president’s executive order ensures that immigration stays top of mind with voters and closely tied to the COVID-19 crisis. If Democrats talk about lifting the restrictions, at least according to the Post-U. Md. Poll, they’d fail to gain the support of many Democratic and independent voters.

Immigration Will Be Central to Campaign—Again

President Trump and Republican candidates around the country will make immigration a central issue in the 2020 election. Even if immigration rightly seems to be of secondary concern due to the public health crisis and economic shock, the president’s actions this week should remove any doubt as to how he will approach it on the campaign trail. Get ready to hear “foreign virus” repeated ad nauseam and applied — implicitly and explicitly — to foreigners and immigrants from any and every country. Prepare for an onslaught of claims that Trump’s immigration restrictions have kept the country safe — and that they need to be extended or only narrowly rolled back. Tight Senate races will see airwaves inundated with Republican ads talking up the dangers of going back to pre-pandemic immigration policy.

The rhetoric on immigration will not be limited to the undocumented or criticism of family reunification. It will extend even to programs such as the H-1B visa, the country’s primary means of letting in high-skilled workers from abroad. It will target foreign students at American universities. (The H-1B, it should be noted, is not included in the restrictions in Trump’s executive order.)

Why will Trump’s immigration rhetoric eventually extend to these? Because a large number of high-skilled migrants, foreign students, and especially waiting-list applicants are Chinese. In 2019, China was behind only Mexico in country share of green cards, accounting for six percent of the total. Trump has already debuted the term “Chinese virus” and suspended World Health Organization funding over China’s handling of COVID-19. If most general voters don’t know the ins and outs of U.S. immigration policy and what nations send the most high-skilled applicants, they soon will.

You can count on all of this. Democrats, just like Trump, need to approach the immigration “pause” as an opportunity — but how?

How to Talk About Immigration

As one of PPI’s pollsters frequently observes, if you don’t engage on an issue, you lose the issue. Democrats need to talk about immigration — and talk about it in the right ways. They need to condemn Trump’s actions, which many are already doing. But they need to do more than that. Voters care about immigration, that much was clear before the crisis. Now, Trump and Miller and their social media machine will ensure voters see immigration consistently tied to coronavirus and unemployment. Democrats need to construct and present a viable, alternative vision.

First, Democrats must acknowledge that many aspects of the current system are broken. Second, Democrats should highlight the parts of the immigration system that actually work well. Those do exist but, understandably, get little attention. We still attract, for the most part, the world’s best and brightest. And the United States remains a beacon for immigrants, calling them to the aspirational American dream.

Talking about immigration in a positive way won’t, however, overcome the real concerns that many voters have, especially when it comes to immigration and identity. A third thing Democrats must do, then, is talk about border security and law enforcement. This includes the U.S.-Mexico border as well as cracking down on employers who violate immigration law. It should also mean laying out a plan for reducing visa overstays, which account for a significant share of undocumented immigrants every year.

Fourth, use the pause to seek a deal with Trump. This will be abhorrent to many Democrats. It may seem fruitless: Miller clearly plays to the president’s political instincts, whispering immigration canards into his ear. But Democrats should at least try the pragmatic approach and assume the president, as on other issues, is fond of deal making. Fine, suspend immigration as a temporary response to the crisis. Now, let’s deal on Dreamers, refugees, asylum, green cards, and more. If Trump refuses or rejects a deal, Democrats can position themselves as reasonable on the issue.

Democrats must also talk about immigration as essential to economic recovery in 2021. This would open up space for those in the party who, while retaining pathways for family reunification, want to widen the routes for economic migration. As noted elsewhere, there are several ideas the Democrats can propose now to increase some economic channels.

Talking about the economic dimension of immigration will be seen by some Democrats as an abdication of the moral case. The two are not mutually exclusive. If, for example, Democrats proposed to use this “pause” as a way to clear the employment-based green card backlogs, the main beneficiaries would be from India, China, and the Philippines. Racism against Asian-Americans is, sadly, on the rise. Democrats can hold the president to account for his incendiary rhetoric while also pushing reasonable reforms.

There is a limit to this — for some voters, no amount of evidence-based persuasion about the economic benefits of immigration will ever be enough. Immigration is, for many Americans, a matter of identity, not pragmatism. Democrats don’t need to appeal to the basest of instincts. Yet they do need to propose policies that marry enforcement and security with aspiration and economic benefit.

In two months, when Trump’s “temporary” suspension is set to end, Democrats had best find themselves well-positioned with a serious, constructive, and salable plan. If not, they’ll be playing defense in the months leading up to the election—and on the losing end of immigration.


Dane Stangler is Director of Policy Innovations at the Progressive Policy Institute.


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