Breaking Out of the Democrats’ Paralysis on Immigration

Democrats need more than compassionate policies for refugees. They need a policy to deal with the immigrant flow itself.

Trump has signaled that he will make immigration a major—if not the major—theme of his re-election campaign. He could not even resist the temptation to immigrant-bash in his supposed consolation tour of El Paso and Dayton.

He is backed by a huge war chest and a thuggish Republican attack apparatus with a successful track record in dirty politics—think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” trope in 1980; George H.W. Bush’s smear of Michael Dukakis over the prison furlough of convicted murderer Willie Horton in 1988; the GOP’s shameless assault on the war record of John Kerry in 2004 to win a second term for Bush’s draft-dodger son.

Expect social media to be flooded with images of migrants throwing rocks at the Border Patrol and rushing to scale the fences, fake stories of immigrants getting better health care than military veterans, and mug shots of immigrant rapists. The MS-13 gang might well become the Willie Horton of the 2020 election.

Against this, Democrats have the moral high ground—arguing for compassion and history; the country after all was built by immigrants. And they have a reasonable set of policies to deal with the humanitarian side of the issue, including rules to ensure humane treatment of detainees, mobilizing federal resources to erase the backlog of applications for refugee status, and leniency for long-term undocumented residents.

The public is with them—to a point. Americans are repelled by Trump’s racist and xenophobic rants, and the brutality toward families and children. They favor a path to citizenship for the undocumented who came here as children. Trump’s wall is not popular.

But although the public supports legal immigration, a majority—well beyond Trump’s base—also want it limited. A June 2019 Gallup poll reported that two-thirds of Americans thought immigration should stay the same or be reduced. Sixty-four percent of Americans in a 2018 Harvard-Harris poll favored sending back people who cross the border without papers. Although a carefully reasoned policy case can be argued for both, decriminalizing illegal entry and abolishing ICE are nonstarters in a general election.

It is a mistake to dismiss the anxiety about uncontrolled immigration as just a product of Trump-inspired racism. In the Harvard-Harris poll, 52 percent of Latinos shared the majority view. All over the world, when immigration surges, tolerance erodes. The shift to the right in Europe was driven by reaction to an immigrant surge well before Trump came on the scene. And a recent poll in Mexico, whose elected leftist president has compared Trump’s treatment of immigrants to Nazism, found support for immigrants from Central America in the past year dropped from 57 percent to 20 percent.

Trump clearly has been trying to pump up white anxieties that extend all the way from legitimate economic concerns to crackpot paranoia over the pending “extinction of the white race.” It is an easy target for social liberals to mock. But for many in the economically depressed towns of the Midwest where the election again may be settled, the issue is not an abstract threat to Caucasian culture, but their own precarious hold on economic survival.

Thus, for example, the non-Hispanic worker (white or black) holding life together in a minimum-wage job in a restaurant, supermarket, or landscaping company, who finds herself increasingly isolated—and the job threatened—because she can’t keep up with her team who communicate with each other in Spanish, or because desperate immigrants will work for less and the boss takes advantage by battering down prevailing wages. This is fertile soil for Trump, as these stories get retold and matched by others in circles of family and friends.

Democrats are appropriately loud and clear in their demand for higher minimum wages and access to health care. But as important as they are, these policies do not address the fear, among those in what should be their solid political base, of losing what is already an increasingly shaky claim to bare-minimum social and economic status in American society. And on issues of border security, which could address that fear, Democratic voices seem muted and evasive. Their policy paralysis is rooted in the politics of the 2020 election. The mobilization of the Latino vote depends on the enthusiastic support of Latino leaders, who quite naturally favor immigration policies that expand their potential constituency—documented or not. In deference to the charge that talking about controlling immigration amounts to blaming the victim—and is possibly racist—liberal Democrats, as Robert Kuttner has noted, have avoided the question of how to handle ordinary illegal entry when it’s unrelated to lawful requests for asylum.

As a result, they are deer in the headlights of Trump’s charge that immigrants from the south are invading us because liberals are promising them open borders. The story is false. Yet his contention has an explanation for the problem and an internal logic that leads to the targeted conclusion: “You may not like him, but you cannot trust the Democrats to control immigration.”

The charge may be sticking; a 2018 Quinnipiac poll reported that Democrats in Congress were seen as more interested in exploiting, rather than resolving, the immigration issue than was Trump.  And it is certainly true that Democratic leaders now expressing outrage at Trump’s stepped-up deportations were silent when Barack Obama was deporting a record 2.9 million undocumented immigrants.

The reality, of course, is that no president—even the most liberal of the 20-odd candidates for the Democratic nomination—could allow control over the country’s borders to be violated with impunity.

Ironically, by avoiding the question of illegal entry, Democrats have passed up the opportunity to hit Trump where he is vulnerable—his own role in motivating more Central Americans to come to the border.

THE UNITED STATES is not being overrun with immigrants. But the border crisis has certainly been made worse by Trump’s incompetence and failure to address long-term causes.

Instead of expanding the legal and physical apparatus to handle the anticipated influx of migrants from Central America, Trump has responded by ratcheting up the brutality once they are here. But as rough as ICE and the Border Patrol can get, the migrants are undeterred; it is nothing compared with what they face at home. And because the immigration system and facilities have not been adequately expanded, noncriminal detainees are typically temporarily released, opening up opportunities to melt into the general U.S. population. As usual, Trump’s answer is to tweet complaints about the people he has appointed and the operations he is responsible for. So, in effect, Trump’s message to the migrants is that the way to get into the U.S. is to keep coming in large numbers.

At times, a temporary drop in those numbers has given Democrats hope that the issue might go away on its own. But current estimates are that a million people will make the crossing illegally in 2019, swelling the current 800,000-case backlog in the immigration courts and overflowing the detention system. Under current circumstances, they will keep coming.

Trump’s latest proposal—to invoke a principle of international law that requires asylum seekers to seek residence in the first country they come to—would try to bottle up refugees from Honduras and El Salvador in Guatemala. But the Guatemalan government already has made clear that they lack the resources and the will to carry out such a plan.

Even a successful rapid expansion of physical infrastructure and processing of applications will not solve the fundamental problem. Most migrants will be sent back because they do not qualify for refugee status. And given the horror at home, they will return to the border. The populations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are projected to increase another 70 percent in the next three decades. It is not unreasonable for voters to ask Democrats, “If you really are not for open borders, what are you going to do about that?”

And in the absence of another answer, Democrats will end up with something that looks like Trump-lite. Not quite a wall, but a heavily armed electronic and razor-wire fence, and Obama-like deportation policies, with festering migrant camps on both sides of the border.

SQUARELY FACING the border-security question does not require Democrats to abandon the moral argument. It requires them to broaden it, from one exclusively based on compassion for the destitute, to acknowledgment of America’s own role in creating the conditions that have made them so desperate to leave their own countries.

Life for most people in Central America has always been hard—a permanent state of poverty overseen by reactionary elites supported by their U.S. business partners. Still, until recently, out-migration was modest. Most people, no matter how poor, would rather not leave their families, culture, and landscape if they can survive where they are. But the U.S.-backed Contra wars of the 1980s, followed by the vast expansion of the narcotics trade to feed the American markets, has created social and economic chaos.

Lured by the profits, the political and military elites collaborated and protected the drug gangs, helping to supply paramilitary thugs and producing a culture of violence that has terrorized ordinary people and destroyed their already meager economic opportunities. And inasmuch as drugs are more profitable and less labor-intensive than coffee or bananas, exporting people to the U.S. is a way of getting rid of a potentially troublesome unemployed surplus workforce.

The U.S. response has been to double down in support of the ruling elites. The Bushes’ War on Drugs transferred more guns and dollars to the corrupt governments. And the Obama administration’s tacit support for the 2009 military coup against a mildly liberal democratically elected president of Honduras sent a clear message throughout the region that despite its human rights rhetoric, when push came to shove, the U.S. would continue to prop up the oligarchs and their vicious friends.

Stabilizing the southern border of the U.S. requires stabilizing the places migrants are coming from in the region with jobs, opportunities, and personal safety. As a first step, the recently elected progressive president of Mexico, Manuel López Obrador, has called for a Marshall Plan–level commitment to the economic development of southern Mexico and Central America. The idea is not taken seriously by the policy class. Robert Kuttner, writing in the Prospect, dismissed it as utopian.

Not so fast. Given the scarcity of easy options, it’s worth a hard look.

One objection is that it doesn’t make economic sense; these are small, impoverished countries with little potential. But López Obrador’s plan actually has a credible basis. A transportation/ industrial development corridor across the isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico could take advantage of big gaps in the global shipping routes that connect Asia and North America through the Panama Canal.

Moreover, the region contains rich and largely unexploited agricultural resources. And—as the experience of migrants in the U.S. shows—its people are hardworking and eager to learn. Thus, the basic ingredients are there for a strategy that could absorb the relatively modest-sized labor forces of southern Mexico and Central America.

Another objection is that there is little to show for previous economic-development efforts. But what has passed for economic development in the region is a scattering of sweatshops and small, isolated foreign-aid projects, often as not looted by the corrupt governments. A serious program of adequate scale has never been tried.

But, asks Kuttner, what do we do about those governments? Should progressives be for “regime change”? Good question.

In this case, the answer, however uncomfortable, is yes, regime change and even nation building. Progressives have rightly opposed, with little success, the U.S. roaming the world deposing other countries’ governments that threaten neither the security nor the vital interests of the American people. But Central America is different. It is morally different because our fingerprints are all over the horrible conditions there.

And, unlike with Iran, the Ukraine, Venezuela, etc., domestic oppression and social turmoil in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador now directly affect ordinary Americans. It is also different because by virtue of the economic dependence of Central America on the American market, we could actually pull it off.

This does not mean we should send in the gunboats and the CIA provocateurs. But it does mean abandoning our military and economic support for the reactionary classes and reaching out to the networks of brave and persistent Central American reformers and dissenters in all these countries struggling to build a better society in the face of death, torture, and banishment. Other natural allies are decent people in the police, military, and judiciary sickened by the corruption and butchery. A clear, convincing message to them that the U.S. is on their side, backed with real money, could be a historic game changer.

The impact on immigration could be felt relatively quickly. Most people leave because they have lost hope that anything will change. Restoring that hope might well convince them that building a life at home is a better bet than watching your children grow up in a detention camp.

Moreover, the accident of history in the person of the progressive López Obrador has given us a politically credible partner. His personal, and Mexico’s historic, distrust of the U.S. could keep a brake on our own habits of imperial arrogance—even with the best of intentions.

All this will require that pro-immigration activists—understandably suspicious of anything that might define the issue as anti-immigrant—give the Democrats space to break out of their paralysis and meet the coming Trump blitzkrieg on immigration designed to once again tip into his column the electoral votes he needs.

If Democrats fail, among the many catastrophic consequences will be a Trump second-term reign of terror against the very immigrants progressives are trying to protect.

(First published on American Prospect)

Jeff Faux

Jeff Faux, Member of the Editorial Board of Insight, is the founder and former president of the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the new book "The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class".

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