Reports of children being separated from their parents, placed in cages and drugged have convinced the majority of Americans that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly something they support. FiveThirtyEight reported that an average of 64 percent of Americans oppose “separating families crossing the border” and “holding children and parents in different facilities while they await trial.” Separated by party, the numbers show a familiar story where Democrats overwhelming oppose the Trump administration’s policies (87 percent) and Republicans are split on support and opposition (45 percent favor the policies, 35 percent oppose). Glancing at right-leaning commentators reveals that many Republicans generally support the concept of enforcing a border but are dismayed by the Trump administrations inhumane approach to the issue. Even with those concerns, the message from Republicans is clear: enforcing the border is important but how this administration is doing it is morally wrong.
As the party of #TheResistance, Democrats are eager to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the issue begs the question: what is the Democratic platform on immigration? Democrat leaders have criticized immigration policies both inside and outside the party, which suggests the reason Democrats don’t have a clear policy position is because their base isn’t necessarily convinced borders should exist, let alone be enforced.
With their unending quest to frame themselves as the all-encompassing “resistance” to Trump, Democrats hope they’ll attract support from anyone who disagrees with any of the administration’s unpopular policies. The latest Trump-fueled outrage of families being separated by ICE agents is one of the many failures by this administration Democrats hope to point to during elections. One of the problems with defining a political party as the opposition to an administration is it becomes difficult to forge what the party actually believes in. At their best, Democrats’ tie their strategy to an actual policy, such as Democrats defense for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which was rolled back by the Trump administration despite maintaining overwhelming support from the public, but other objections that are not tied to policy have created adversarial rhetoric that leads to unsustainable policies for the party of the resistance.
For example, Trump’s executive order limiting travel from seven countries with Muslim-majorities was rightly criticized as poor policy from both sides of the aisle. Many pointed out the obvious inconsistencies of mysteriously leaving out Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from the list of countries (both of which have direct links to Islamic extremism and also a tendency to make generous donations to the US) or the impracticality of indiscriminately banning an entire country of people. Even with these criticisms available to them, Democrats focused on portraying the order as “un-American” and “Islamophobic.” Democrats are skillfully focusing on these criticisms that attack the moral character of the administration to effectively portray the entire administration as racist or un-American. This criticism is again being leveled against the administration following the latest inhumane scandal, but now Democrats have cornered themselves by routinely calling any enforcement of the border as “un-American.” When an entire category of policy is labeled antithetical to America, it’s difficult to suggest alternatives within that category.
This rhetoric is part of an ongoing trend of Democrats unable to agree if immigration is something that should be limited. Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rollback asylum status for people who cited domestic abuse as reason to flee their country, NPR wrote an article criticizing the decision, as if domestic abuse was an issue that the United States alone was burdened with solving. The language surrounding immigration issues has been morphed to suggest “illegal immigration” isn’t a crime such as when California Senator and speculated 2020 Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris tweeted “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” Even the most popular politician in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, can’t escape criticism on the issue. Sanders caught flak from Vox during his presidential candidacy when he suggested open borders would only serve right-wing billionaires interested in depressing wages.
As Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America observed, “Democrats are afraid of this issue.” The reason being that the policy with the most support may not be politically viable. Collating all the criticism directed both outside and inside the party, it would seem the most popular position would be no immigration policy at all. The thinking behind this view would be logically consistent with progressives’ interest in inclusiveness and appealing to lofty ideals that expand human rights. Unfortunately for the idealists of the party, enforcing borders is a popular policy position. Democrats love to appeal to lofty ideas, even when there are practical arguments against them, but whereas some tentpole policies such as universal health care or minimum wage increases survive criticism by citing public support, a radically progressive approach to immigration may renew a long-time criticism of Democrats’ impetus to embrace unpopular and unsustainable positions that makes the party lose elections.
For now, Democrats are content with directing the attention to Trump’s unpopular policy rather than formulating their own. Nearly all Americans are unified under the belief of “not this” but Democrats haven’t had a coherent immigration policy for nearly a decade. If they want to make a more compelling appeal for why their ideas would work better they’ll have to start defining them in terms that separate them from their political adversary.