The Democratic Road Forward on Immigration

It’s not the current bill.

The Democrats have put forward a very ambitious immigration bill. Ambitious, but without the remotest chance of passing. Republicans will not sign on to a bill that essentially does nothing to address their concerns about border security, so they will filibuster the bill in the Senate. And Democrats are not going to try to break the filibuster for this bill. Therefore, it will not pass.

The timing is also peculiar. The country is still reeling from the twin coronavirus and economic crises, which will take some time to resolve even if the Democrats are successful with their related legislative efforts and mass vaccination drive. Is this really the right time to pursue legislation that could drive increased border crossings, thereby melding border security with health security concerns? Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (TX-15), whose district is a border region heavily impacted by immigration flows, doesn’t think so:

The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemicOur party should be concerned. If we go off the rails, it’s going to be bad for us…Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents a border district in Texas, has raised similar concerns:

Hey, we don’t want the wall, but when it comes to the other issues, we gotta be careful that we don’t give the impression that we have open borders because otherwise the numbers are going to start going up. And surely enough, we’re starting to see numbers go up.

The views of these representatives from heavily Hispanic districts raises serious questions about whether this bill, leaving aside its possibility of backlash from white voters, would even improve Democratic fortunes among Hispanic voters. Roy Herrera, who advises Democratic Senator Mark Kelly from Arizona and was counsel to Biden’s successful 2020 campaign in the state, thinks the view that the bill would improve Democratic odds among Hispanic voters reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the Hispanic vote (a point I also made in a recent post)::

While there’s some concern [about immigration], most Arizonans know they have two senators who want a solution to the immigration problem that is balanced… They want to provide some relief to folks who are undocumented, but they also want a secure border so that there’s not an increase and flood of migrants we can’t handle….

A lot of the Democratic-leaning groups still have not figured out how to talk to Latinos in that the overwhelmingly progressive messaging is not that effective… So, yes, immigration is important, but the focus for them is on jobs, the economy, the raise I got at work, the cost of health care and if I can take a loan out for my business.

So, what is the road forward on this issue then? First, concentrate on solving the COVID-19 and economic crises, which is what will really endear Democrats to voters in general and Hispanic voters in particular. Second, accept that if any aspect of this bill moves forward, it will be only after it is broken up into chunks, as Nancy Pelosi has suggested. The most obvious approach is to improve the situation of the “Dreamers,” and even then a bill along these lines would probably have to include border security provisions that would be responsive the concerns of Republicans and some Democrats.

More generally, Democrats moving forward have to accept the reality of American public opinion and politics that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system. Indeed, the most popular part of the current immigration bill is the provision most directly related to border security (technologically enhanced port of entry screening) according to Morning Consult. And public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.

This suggests a serious revamp of the Democratic approach to immigration flows and immigration reform. The public has indeed become more sympathetic to immigrants and immigration, partially as a thermostatic reaction to the practices of the Trump administration. But that does not mean that Democrats can simply be the opposite of Trump on this issue. He was closed; we’re open! He was mean; we’re nice! Any moves toward greater leniency at the border and the creation of legalization regimes for undocumented immigrants raises the possibility of knock-on effects and unintended consequences that would be highly unpopular. How do you prevent people from gaming the system? How do you handle the possibility of surges at the border to take advantage of leniency and legalization regimes? Any immigration reform package worth its salt must have serious answers to these questions.

America is a very desirable destination, and it is simply a fact that many more people want to come here than can possibly be accommodated. Therefore, choices will have to be made about the numbers to be let in. What is, in fact, a desirable level of legal immigration? If Democrats wish it to be much higher, which is a defensible position, then they must have an answer for who these people should be. How are slots to be allocated—would the country be served well by moving to more a skill-based system or at least a hybrid that leans in that direction? And if the immigration system is to be more generous, how are levels of illegal immigration to be controlled? It will not do to make the immigration system more generous, while doing little to control flows of illegal immigration. Most of all, voters want an immigration system that is both reasonably generous and humane and under control. Democrats ignore the “under control” part at their peril.

This story first appeared on The Liberal Patriot.

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Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira is a co-editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter, writing about demographics, politics, and elections.