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Why Democrats Keep Caving on Immigration

For years, Democrats have embraced hardline immigration policies in a desperate attempt to win Republican votes. But the only way to deliver justice for immigrants is to defeat the Right — with a progressive, multiracial coalition.

Nancy Pelosi answers questions on immigration issues and pending legislation during her weekly press conference at the US Capitol on June 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

No issue captures the failures of the Democratic Party’s old guard quite like our inhumane immigration system. After three years of breathless warnings that Donald Trump represents a fascist threat to the republic, a majority of congressional Democrats — self-styled Resistance warriors through and through — caved to its conservative Blue Dog caucus and rubber-stamped Trump’s concentration camps, voting through an emergency border aid bill that gives the president everything he wanted with precious little in return.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi has defended the bill as a necessary evil, an imperfect short-term measure to improve conditions in the camps. In a statement, she explained: “in order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.” In other words, to protect the children held in detention centers, the Democratic Party’s congressional leaders have determined they must write a blank check to an administration that has argued in court that kids do not need toothpaste, soap, towels, showers, or even a half-night’s sleep. Pelosi’s hand was forced by both Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s incompetent response to a ghastly piece of legislation backed by Mitch McConnell and the twist of the knife from a conservative faction of Democratic “Problem Solvers” in the House. Still, it remains a grave failure of leadership that she did not join with dissenting progressive members of the House — including democratic socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — in condemning the bill and voting against it.

Make no mistake: the arrival of these funds will not improve conditions at the border. In fact, it will worsen them — increasing the government’s capacity to detain migrants while providing no congressional oversight of the deplorable living conditions in the camps. The bill that passed the House and Senate excluded even the modest provisions that would have limited the time a child could spend in detention to ninety days, and canceled contracts with private companies that failed to maintain federal standards after six months.

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) cry poverty to Congress, they spend an average of $775 per day per detained migrant. Even assuming that it is somehow reasonable for the government to spend more money incarcerating someone than it would cost to rent a room in a luxury hotel, conditions chronicled by the recent delegation of progressive Democrats made clear that inhumane treatment is not the unintended consequence of underfunding. The cruelty is the point. As ProPublica reported, earlier this week, nearly half of CBP employees belong to a Facebook group rife with bigotry, where they joke about migrant deaths and spew misogynist venom at left-wing congresswomen who have spoken out against Trump’s border policies. Is it any surprise that they fail to treat migrants with basic decency?

Democrats’ Draconian History

The fact that so many Democratic politicians are willing to work with Republicans on border militarization is not new, or even especially surprising. For the better part of three decades, Democrats have paid rhetorical homage to the centrality of immigrants and their families to the American experience, while caving to the conservative immigration agenda time after time.

During the 1990s, the Clinton White House did their best to outflank conservative critics by tacking to the Right. While Pete Wilson, Pat Buchanan, and other nativist hardliners in the Republican Party relentlessly demonized immigrants, Clinton and his backers did everything they could to drive home that Democrats, too, could be counted on to carry out harsh immigration enforcement.

In one speech, Clinton condemned Wilson’s nativist Proposition 187 (which denied undocumented children access to public schools and other government services) — not because it was wrong, but because it was impractical. Clinton further argued that Wilson was exploiting the issue for political gain, when the Republicans were to blame: “He made the [immigration] problem happen when he was in the Senate. And when he came back here and he had his President [Bush] in Washington, he never issued a peep for more money or a peep of blame or responsibility.”

Throughout his time in office, Clinton not only accepted conservative arguments that immigration was a problem, but made the case that he was a staunch defender of the border. Early, in his first term, he funded three major deportation campaigns in California (Operation Gatekeeper), Texas (Operation Hold the Line), and Arizona (Operation Safeguard). Then, in 1996, he worked with Republicans and passed a draconian immigration bill that cut asylum admissions and roughly tripled the rate of deportations. The law also made it far harder for unauthorized immigrants already present in the country to legalize their status.

If the Democratic Party’s goal was simply to flip a few nativist voters and build compromises with their political representatives in Congress, Clinton’s position may have made political sense, whatever its moral implications. But Clinton didn’t just want the votes of white nativists in Congress — he also wanted the votes of the Latino voters they hated.

The clear contradictions of this position came to a head during the Obama administration. As a senator, Obama had voted for the Secure Fence Act in 2006, alongside many other congressional Democrats. Like McCain, Obama endorsed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in 2008, while still insisting on further militarization of the border. Yet despite Obama’s milquetoast immigration record, the coalition that brought him to the White House was powered by the children of Asian and Latin American immigrants. Commentators in the aftermath of the election argued that the Republican Party’s death was just on the horizon, because the country would be majority-minority by mid-century, thanks in large part to the young, fast-growing Latino population.

Faced with this political conundrum, Obama gradually pivoted to the left on immigration. In the run-up to his reelection campaign, he issued DACA, an executive order designed to shelter from deportation young people who immigrated as small children. Two years later, he extended the deportation stay to their parents in the DAPA executive order, though this policy was quickly defeated in the courts. Still, the deportations continued, since the administration believed a tough border policy would help win Republicans over to immigration reform. In 2012 alone, the same year Obama signed DACA, some 150,000 children with citizenship lost a parent to Obama’s deportation policies.

Leading activists vocally criticized the president throughout his second term, especially after an effort to craft a bipartisan immigration reform bill died in the House. Obama, apparently blindsided by the criticism, felt “hurt” when leading immigrant rights groups labeled him the “deporter-in-chief.”

But activists’ outrage unveiled a truth that stretched back at least to Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign: the Democratic Party’s approach to immigration politics is completely incoherent. Democrats seek to build a lasting electoral coalition that centers on the inevitability of a majority-minority nation, while violently punishing the movement across borders that has facilitated demographic change.

Toward a Left Immigration Politics

Clinton and Obama expanded the powers of the deportation machine in the hopes of receiving credit from a virulently nativist Republican Party that will no sooner trust liberals on border security than it will accept limits on the state’s powers to incarcerate migrants or build the wall. Meanwhile, opinion polling shows that young Latino voters — the people at the heart of the Democrats’ demography-is-destiny path to electoral realignment — view the current size of the immigrant population as perfectly reasonable, with many believing that the country has too few immigrants, not too many. Immigration is far from the only issue that Latino voters care about, but there is little sense in ignoring them in a hopeless bid to please hardened conservatives.

With near unanimous outrage in mainstream Democratic Party circles over the human rights abuses of the detention centers, now is the time to force a reckoning with the party’s recent record on immigration. As veteran immigration reporters like Aura Bogado and Julio Ricardo Varela have emphasized, many of the worst abuses of Trump-era immigration policies were in place during Obama’s presidency, including the imprisonment of migrants seeking asylum for extended periods prior to a court date, separation of parents from their children, and placement of asylum seekers in hieleras (extremely cold rooms).

Democrats must condemn such policies and advance a humane immigration policy that finally recognizes that immigrant rights are workers’ rights. Julian Castro’s proposal to roll back Section 1325, making immigration a civil offense, rather than a federal crime, offers a starting point. The larger goal should be to abolish ICE.

Democrats must also treat the enforcers of the immigration system as the villains they are — people who imprison children, deny them basic sanitation, and hold them in cages; people who dump out water left in the desert so that more migrants might perish of thirst and exposure; people who have raped women and underage girls held in captivity, all without facing any consequences for their actions.

As Democratic politicians hem and haw and try to revert to the comfortable middle ground of preaching inclusion while punishing border crossers, we must continue to push for moral clarity at the border. The Border Patrol and ICE do not protect anyone. They terrorize migrants and further the exploitation of workers. They must be stopped.