Donald Trump, who speaks primarily in soundbites or non-sequiturs, has recently attached himself to a new catchphrase about immigration: the United States is “full.” “We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full,” he said earlier this month while visiting the U.S.-Mexico border. He repeated the phrase again while speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas that same weekend telling the audience: “Our system’s full; our country’s full. You can’t come in. Our country is full. What can we do? We can’t handle any more. Our country’s full. You can’t come in, I’m sorry.”
The Democratic response was surprisingly muted, with the strongest condemnations coming from newer and lower-profile members of the House. Representative Pramila Jayapal described it as a “ridiculous statement.” Representative David Cicilline wrote that the president’s remarks “more than anything else he’s ever said, are how [Trump’s] terrible presidency will be remembered by history.”
These kinds of quick statements are by now familiar: Since the start of Trump’s campaign in 2015, the Democratic Party has been quick to define itself in opposition to his rhetoric and policies, particularly when it comes to immigration. Leadership has broadly denounced his attacks on sanctuary cities, the inhumane treatment of children and families at the border, and general cartoon-level xenophobia. It’s on the specifics that the matter gets more complicated. On the same weekend that Trump was once again parroting the rhetoric of far-right nativists, statements by two leading Democrats highlighted a truth that has become increasingly obvious under the current administration: Democrats have an immigration problem, too.
At a recent campaign event in Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders, currently a Democratic frontrunner for president, was asked whether he supports open borders, an idea that has long been used as a rightwing cudgel but is now gaining some traction on the left. “I think what we need is comprehensive immigration reform,” he said, before going into his rationale for not opening our borders—a position that sidled uneasily up to Trump’s comments. “If you open the borders, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world,” Sanders replied. “And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.” Last week, at his Fox News town hall, Sanders reiterated the need for both immigration reform as well as border security: “We need border security, of course we do, who argues with that? That goes without saying. I happen to believe there are more cost-effective ways to do that than a wall.”
In Berlin earlier this month, former president Barack Obama also addressed the issue of migration, framing anti-immigrant sentiment as a problem that both racists and immigrants have a responsibility to address. Telling his audience that “we can’t label everyone who is disturbed by migration as racist,” Obama continued:
“Should we want to encourage newcomers to learn the language of the country that they’re moving to? Of course. Does that mean that they can never use their own language? No, of course it doesn’t mean that, but it’s not racist to say, ‘Ah, if you’re going to be here then you should learn the language of the country that you just arrived at because we need to have some sort of common language in which all of us can work, and learn and understand each other.”
Obama’s speech echoed his general ideological posture—that immigration reform requires reaching out across the aisle and, by necessity, must include not only a (difficult) path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, but an increase in border security. It’s a stance that Democrats have championed at least since Bill Clinton’s tenure in office. The idea that legalization must be coupled with efforts to make the border a fortress was put into action by Ronald Reagan, whose 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act packaged these dual objectives together.
Since then, most major bipartisan efforts have kept this framework in place, and have often been even more punishing than what was championed by Reagan. This was the case in 2007 under then-President George W. Bush, and the case in 2013 under Obama, when efforts to pass immigration reform bills ultimately failed largely due to Republican obstruction (and in 2007, to many Democrats’s as well as organized labor’s ambivalence towards some of the reforms). This conservative idea—heavy enforcement with an arduous path to permanent resident status or citizenship for some—repackaged as bipartisan immigration reform is what I imagine Obama meant when in Berlin, he called for “a humane, intelligent, thoughtful, orderly immigration policy that is grounded in our better selves and our better values,” and what Sanders, who supported the 2013 bill, referred to when he spoke of “comprehensive” immigration reform.
“Most Democrats are afraid of being accused of being ‘soft’ on security,” immigration historian and Columbia University professor Mae Ngai told Jezebel over email. “Hence they remain committed to the model of ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ which is not really ‘comprehensive’ but a trade off between legalization and enhanced border security.”
During the last two years, Trump has made it easy for Democrats to say what they don’t want—a border wall, or a Muslim ban, or for children to be ripped away from their families, or tent cities for immigrants, or for any people to be dehumanized as “animals.” But Democrats have been much less forthcoming about what they want in a comprehensive immigration platform. When they manage to articulate a clear position, it is often a regurgitation of the same, punitive status quo—a status quo that has harmed millions of people, who today face the daily consequences of the current system.
Trump’s position towards immigrants has been so inhumane and racist that in many ways, it’s given Democrats, including those who are currently running for president, an easy out—criticizing his policies and putting out strong statements of support for immigrants obscures the fact that when it comes to actual proposals, they tend to support more of the pre-Trump status quo.
In the absence of concrete policy, some vague themes are apparent among the Democratic presidential candidates, even at this early stage in the primary—almost all candidates have voiced support for “comprehensive immigration reform” and legal status for so-called Dreamers. Most candidates (with the exception of Texas Representative Joaquin Castro) have yet to release detailed proposals for reforming our immigration system, a sign either of how little they prioritize the issue or how politically risky they feel it is, or both.
Again and again, you can see the candidates walk up to the line of calling for a humane immigration system, but then doubling down on precisely the systems and policies that make it so violent in the first place. Earlier this year, Kamala Harris criticized Trump’s border wall, but told an audience, “I do support border security, and if we want to talk about that, let’s do that.” She reiterated that view during an appearance on the Daily Show, telling Trevor Noah, “[W]e need smart border security. We can’t have open borders, we need to have border security, all nations do.”
Bernie Sanders, whose long-standing claim that open borders would depress wages for American workers (which myopically puts some of the blame for the exploitative labor practices of employers on immigrants) has led to some unlikely allies from the right, has long expressed the need to secure our borders. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both voted in favor of 2013's Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which included provisions that today read like several items from Trump’s wishlist—up to $40 billion for border enforcement, including an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as an expansion of the employment verification system E-Verify.
Similarly, Cory Booker has said he wants immigration reform while “enforcing our laws and securing our borders in ways consistent with our values.” While Kirsten Gillibrand, who had previously fought efforts to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, pushed to hire more ICE officers, and repeatedly called for increased border security, now says that she’s ashamed of her previous hardline stances and that her views have changed, she continues to highlight the need for border security.
In another sign that most of the Democratic presidential candidates are unwilling to challenge the status quo, many of the senators running for president are calling for the Senate to reject the Trump administration’s request to up the number of ICE agents, writing in an open letter that “we cannot support the appropriation of funds that would expand this administration’s unnecessarily cruel immigration enforcement policies, its inhumane immigrant detention systems, or its efforts to build the president’s vanity projects.” Yet many of the same senators don’t question why ICE’s budget has more than doubled since 2003.
And for all of Beto O’Rourke’s championing of border issues, his position on border security is curiously difficult to pin down. When asked if he would dismantle the hundreds of miles of fencing and walls that currently line the border, he responded, “Absolutely, I’d take the wall down.” Yet during a CNN town hall during his Texas Senate run, he said, “I’m not in favor of open borders,” before reiterating his call for increased security at ports of entry. (This is, of course, not merely a problem limited to the presidential candidates. Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer regularly champion the need for border security, as they did repeatedly during Trump’s temper tantrum over his border wall.)
As Suzy Lee, a professor at Binghampton University who writes regularly about migration, wrote recently: “On the questions of migration quotas, economic migration, or border enforcement, the Democratic Party has always been restrictionist. It has simply insisted that the policy be tempered by humanitarian concerns such as the reunification of families and the extension of rights to unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country.” Lee continued: “Even a call that sounds as radical as ‘Abolish ICE’ is ultimately only a critique of how restriction is enforced.”
It’s worth examining here what “border security” has looked like for decades—hundreds of miles of fencing that have pushed people into more dangerous border crossings (and into an increasing reliance on human smugglers); a post-9/11 ramp-up of the militarization and surveillance of the border, replete with drones, helicopters, and a “virtual wall;” and tens of thousands of Customs and Border Enforcement agents, including Border Patrol officers, making CBP the “largest federal law enforcement agency in the nation,” and one that regularly engages in racial profiling, with remarkably little oversight. And the border reaches deep into the nation’s interior—as Melissa del Bosque wrote in Harper’s, the “legal definition of ‘the border’ is troublingly broad,” with some 200 million people living within what the Justice Department defines as the “border zone.”
At its heart of the obsession with border security “is the conceit that border can be made impermeable,” a false notion that, as Ngai has written in the past, refuses to acknowledge that “undocumented migration... is the inevitable result of any general policy of immigration restriction.” In short, the idea that we can seal up our borders in any real way is a myth. There is no “humane” restrictionist policy.
But given the cruelties of a Trump presidency, it’s clear that it’s time for both the party and its candidates to steer a new path. And it is a position that voters may gravitate towards. As Daniel Denvir noted in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “Voters used to overwhelmingly favor less immigration, but opinions have changed fast amid an immigrant rights movement that took off in 2006 and partisan polarization driven by aggressive enforcement.”
Denvir pointed to polls that show that among Democrats, an increasing number believe that immigration levels should be increased—from 20 percent in 2006 to 40 percent in 2018. (It should be noted that the Pew Center poll Denvir cited framed it as “legal immigration.”) Other surveys have illustrated how Democratic voters have consistently trended towards pro-immigrant views in recent decades. And when it comes to the question of undocumented immigrants, far more Democratic voters now believe the priority for immigration policy should be creating a pathway to citizenship rather than a focus on increased security at the border and immigration enforcement.
This does not mean that the Democratic base is ready to accept the idea of open borders, or that candidates should even support the idea. But it does signal an opening to at the very least put forth an expansive and humane vision of immigration that acts as an ideological counterweight to Trump’s nativist, restrictionist vision.
Lee, the Binghampton professor, argues persuasively that for progressives like Bernie Sanders who are largely concerned with worker’s rights, people’s material interests are actually enhanced when there is more expansive and open immigration and border policy. As she put it, “The labor movement cannot win without immigrant workers, and creating the conditions for immigrant workers to fully engage in struggle requires not only a defense of immigrants’ formal rights, but an outright rejection of restrictionism with regard to migration flow.” “Anything less, including amnesty,” Lee wrote, “contributes to the construction of immigration as a ‘problem,’ and perpetuates the cycles of anti-immigrant politics in which we are now caught.”
Far from our country being “full,” it’s time to recognize that we both have the capacity and the moral imperative, in a time of increasing instability and climate change-driven migration, to throw open our doors. In response to Trump’s desire to curtail legal immigration, some mainstream political commentators are beginning to call for the opposite. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox, “Few of our problems can be solved by curtailing immigration. Many could be solved by welcoming more foreigners to our shores.”
What might that look like in the immediate term? Ngai told Jezebel that legislative reform must include a simplified and streamlined path to citizenship for undocumented Americans, free of the lengthy wait times and onerous burdens that previous legislation has included; an overhaul of our current quota system, which she described as “an unfair system that generates unauthorized entry from countries with large populations;” and an increase in the overall numbers of immigrants that the United States accepts every year.
And at least one Democratic presidential candidate has recognized the need to put out a plan that moves far away from the model of “citizenship for some, detention and deportation for the rest.” This month, Texas Representative Joaquin Castro released his “People First” immigration plan, which includes some standard Democratic policy proposals, but goes beyond them. The proposal calls for a large-scale dismantling of the post-9/11 immigration enforcement system as well as turning so-called “illegal entry” from a criminal violation to a civil one—making it, as Vox’s Dara Lind wrote,“the federal equivalent of a traffic ticket.” It is not, as some Republicans have charged, a plan for open borders, but it represents a significant break from the failed Democratic consensus.
On issues from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, the Democratic presidential candidates have been trending leftward (if unevenly), embracing a slew of progressive positions that would have been unthinkable in 2016 and kickstarting a vigorous and necessary debate on issues that are literally life or death. The appeal of Medicare for All is at its heart a moral one—replacing an inhumane, grotesque system with one that values human life. The argument for opening borders is largely the same. What looked like reform that many could stomach in 2013—a pathway to citizenship coupled with increased border security and the expansion of the deportation machine—is no longer palatable (and nor was it acceptable to many immigrant rights activists at that time). People deserve better.
Immigration will clearly be, as it was in 2016, a key issue for Donald Trump as he campaigns to get reelected. He is counting on the fact that his fear-mongering will be just as effective this time around. For the Democrats to effectively position themselves as a true alternative, they need to do more than denounce his racism while hiding from the policies that would actually rebuke it.