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In a recent post about the 2020 presidential election I wondered about the fact that Biden hadn’t entered the race. Well he finally did, and in a recent poll he appears to be stomping on the rest of the candidates, with a 30 point lead over his nearest competitor (Sanders, 44 to 14). One can almost imagine a relatively smooth primary process where Biden has things locked up as soon as Super Tuesday rolls around, and from there goes onto easily beat Trump, ending the long national nightmare and restoring peace and prosperity to the land. Of course we arguably already have prosperity, which is one of many reasons why Biden’s path to victory might not be quite that smooth. Another reason is immigration.

Despite being one of the biggest political issues of the day, I’ve spent very little time directly talking about immigration. Which is not to say I’ve spent no time on it. I feel like I did a pretty comprehensive survey of the issue back in February of 2017 and I stand by that post. To recap, my argument always starts with the question, “Can we have completely open borders?” That is, could we accommodate, as immigrants, every person who wants to come here? Given that conservatively, the number of people who want to come here is in the hundreds of millions, realistically the answer to that has to be “No”. And if that’s the case, if we can’t take everyone, then we need to have some rules for who can come and who can’t. And further we should have some standards for deciding what those rules are. I’m fine with different people having different standards, that’s only to be expected, but they should at least be required to articulate what those standards are.

In the race to determine who will face Trump in the 2020 election, the race Biden seems to be winning, all of the various Democratic candidates are going to have the opportunity to do just that. The question is, what will they do with this opportunity? I imagine they’ll have very little difficulty talking about who should be able to come, and perhaps more importantly, stay. It’s when they’re required to articulate who can’t come that things are going get tricky. But of course unless they’re for open borders (which the New York Times assures us is not the case) all of them should have a standard for both.

But, as I said, it’s tricky. Given this, most have chosen to make lots of supportive comments and speeches about immigrants and keeping families together and, most of all, how evil Trump has been about the whole thing, while avoiding any actual policy proposals. As far as I can tell only Julián Castro has put together an actual platform explaining what he would do as far as immigration, but even here, his focus seems to be entirely on “radically restrict[ing] immigration enforcement”. There’s no discussion of anything resembling a standard for determining who can’t immigrate. I guess you could take what remains from the first part, and that might be a standard, if you squint?

It’s possible that most candidates have a strategy of continuing this tactic all the way through to the election, but will that strategy work?

I’ve seen a lot of articles arguing that it probably won’t. And, I should point out, it’s an indication of the issue’s importance that news sites are already talking about it 17 months before the election. Though, it is of course always possible that it will end up not being very important by the time the actual election rolls around, I see no reason to expect that.

These sites offer a lot of different takes on the issue; recommend various strategies; and use different numbers to define the importance of the issue. But they all seem to agree that if they’re not careful, that Democrats may lose the election on precisely this issue. The article which lays this possibility out most starkly appeared in The Nation (a very progressive outlet) titled Trump Is laying a Trap for Democrats on Immigration and it points out the following:

…a majority of Americans—in numbers well beyond Trump’s base—also want immigration laws to be strictly enforced and the border sealed against illegal crossings. A 2018 Harvard/Harris poll reported that 70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws, with 64 percent—including 53 percent of Latinos—in favor of sending back people who cross the border without papers. And although most blamed Trump for the government shutdown, when that skirmish was over, his favorability ratings rose by three points.

On top of all this the immigration crisis appears to only be getting worse. From the same article:

Until recently, Democrats might have counted on the issue
 going away by itself. Unauthorized border crossings fell substantially from their highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely because of a drop-off in migrants from Mexico. But the numbers from Central America—especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have risen. Some 76,000 undocumented migrants crossed the border in February, an 11-year high. Forecasts are for another 180,000 by May.

The immigration system on our southern border is collapsing. Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases estimated at 850,000. Detention centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Children are lost, women are abused, and busloads of confused migrants and refugees are dumped on the street and told to come back later for their hearings. Some show up, some don’t.

70 percent and 850,000 are both big numbers, and it illustrates a point I’ve made before. For a long time there has been a disconnect between the politicians and the people on what should be done about immigration. Not merely among the Democrats, but also the Republicans. And I have long argued that Trump won, in spite of all of his negative qualities, because he was the first politician who was able to tap into that disconnect. There were other Republican candidates before Trump who wanted to be tough on immigration, but none of them managed to get any attention or traction. Trump came in with plenty of built in attention, and when you combine that with an issue that has the support of up to 70 percent of the electorate, and a worsening situation on the ground, his election becomes a lot easier to explain.

Trump himself was reportedly indifferent to the idea of a wall, at least initially. But once he started talking about it the response was overwhelming. An indication of how bad the disconnect had been and how much pent up demand there was. By making it a signature issue, in effect

Trump let the genie out of the bottle. I don’t want to exaggerate immigration’s unimportance pre-2015, but neither party paid much attention to it, and while it received some lip service, what action there was always ended going in the direction of loosening standards. People are finally realizing that there is a huge appetite for discussion of tighter controls, but as I have repeatedly said, it’s tricky, and I think we all know why. Not only did Trump let the genie out of the bottle, he also made it an issue so toxic that no one wants to touch it, but is that a viable long term strategy? It’s a huge issue and with 70 percent of people favoring more restrictive laws it’s a little unclear how the Democratic candidates are going to deal with it. If that number was 45% it’d be an entirely different story, but it’s not. Or is it?

As I said each of the articles I’ve seen has offered up different data in support of their arguments. And the data included by the various articles is not easy to compare. For example here’s what Slate says:

In a poll just before last year’s midterms, a Pew study found that 75 percent of Republicans identify illegal immigration as a “very big problem” for the United States… [However] immigration doesn’t seem to be a priority for most American voters. Among the general public, immigration ranks ninth among “public policy priorities” for 2019. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans view immigration as an asset for the country. Perhaps more importantly, some polls suggest the number of independents who hold a positive view of immigration and its role in America has continued to grow.

During the same conversation, Daniel Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Western Hemisphere adviser to President Obama, told me Democrats should avoid “getting into some sort of argument about how to manage migration into the United States.” According to Restrepo, immigration “is not a frontline issue for a lot of persuadable voters.”

You can see how “70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws” and “immigration ranks ninth among ‘public policy priorities’ for 2019” could both be true. But, for me at least, they give very different impressions about how big the issue is and whether Democratic candidates can afford to ignore it. Slate uses their data to support the idea that they might be able to do just that, but even here, in the most optimistic article I could find, they call it a “huge gamble”.

If candidates aren’t willing to take the gamble of ignoring it entirely, if they feel the need to have a strong stance on the issue of immigration. What are their options?

I’ve already mentioned Julián Castro’s plan to radically restrict immigration enforcement. And yes, at least he’s not ignoring the issue, but it seems unlikely that this plan will do much to placate the 70 percent of people who want more restrictive laws. (Though, perhaps the fact they’re both talking about “restrictions” will help a little bit among the easily confused.) Also I think there’s going to be a lot of competition for this particular territory.

For one possible answer I’ll now turn to the FiveThirtyEight article on the subject. As you can imagine, considering the source, the article has much more data than either the Slate or The Nation article, but despite that I don’t know that I came away with any additional clarity on the mood of the nation, except perhaps on the issue of border security. FiveThirtyEight seemed to think that there was space for Democratic candidates to take a stand there.

Opposing Trump’s unpopular positions on immigration and fighting for legal protections for some undocumented immigrants has proven to be safe political ground for Democrats. Now it might be time for Democratic presidential candidates to expand on this approach and start tackling the issue of border security in a similar way. Simon Rosenberg, president of a liberal think tank called NDN, argues that Democrats should take advantage of the fact that Trump has attached himself to unpopular immigration stances that didn’t pay off in the 2018 midterms. “Democrats just have to be clear on what their positions are on the border and [border] enforcement.” And ignoring concerns about border enforcement could prove unwise for Democrats — for instance, a January survey from ABC News/Washington Post found that 54 percent of Americans thought the country was doing too little to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Rosenberg said he thought Democrats could find a way to craft an immigration strategy that’s both humane and “also takes border enforcement seriously.”

This seems simultaneously wise and incredibly risky, and thus far, to the best of my knowledge, none of the Democratic candidates have even hinted that they might adopt an immigration platform which includes a tightening of border security. This makes a certain amount of sense, as I said Trump has made the whole issue toxic, and this does seem a dangerous tightrope to walk. On the one side the candidate would almost certainly alienate a significant fraction of Democratic primary voters, while on the other side there’s no guarantee you’d pick up any of the more moderate voters who might appreciate tighter security at the borders, to say nothing of picking up enough to be ahead of the game.

As I final potential position there remains the possibility that one of the candidates will not only speak to border security, that he or she will emphasis it. Make it one of the central themes of their campaign, in a fashion similar to Trump, but hopefully with a little more grace. This would seem to be the least likely option of all, but there is reason to imagine that it might be on the table for some of the candidates.

It’s often been said, and I think I may have even said it myself, that the political divide is increasingly not between the conservatives/right on the one side and the liberals/left on the other, but between the nationalists and the globalists. And in no case is that divide clearer than when it comes to immigration. If we look at things from this perspective it’s worth asking if there are any Democratic candidates with nationalist leanings? Is populism on the nationalist side of the fence? I would think so, in which case there might be at least one candidate who fits the bill, Bernie Sanders.

You may think it’s a stretch to suggest that Sanders could end up being a Trump clone, at least on immigration, but no less of an authority on extreme immigration restrictions than Ann Coulter has said that she would support Sanders if he returned to his original immigration position. Beyond Ann Coulter it’s not immediately clear how much support someone like Sanders might pick up from returning to his original position on immigration, but, if nothing else it would certainly set him apart from the rest of the pack.

And here we return to the poll I started with, Sanders is currently 30 points behind Biden. Maybe he’ll start clawing that back. Maybe a significant part of that lead is temporary, an artifact of Biden recently launching his campaign. But on the other hand maybe it will just keep getting bigger, and taking a harder stance on immigration will become more and more appealing, particularly if it’s something that Sanders is already ideologically disposed to. Which based on his populist/nationalist leanings and his past statements he very well might be. And of course if you look past Sanders there are 16 candidates currently polling at less than 3%. Given the numbers I listed above (take your pick) it’s certainly conceivable that one of those candidates will try something of a hail mary with respect to immigration.

Tying all of this together, my central point is that the immigration issue is not going away. And in the current political climate, it’s something which strongly favors Republicans. The 2020 primaries are going to be our first real chance to see how Democrats might handle this new landscape, and I think it’s already apparent that it’s going to cause them problems. Perhaps even more important, is the landscape after the next election. You can certainly imagine Biden easily winning despite ignoring the issue, just because Trump is so unpopular, but what happens in 2024 or 2028? There will definitely be several Republican candidates trying to duplicate Trump’s success by being tough on immigration. And while I think Trump is underestimated as a communicator and a candidate, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone else could come along who’s more likable. In that case, if support for more restrictive laws remains as high as it is now (and recall it might actually go up, that’s what happened in Europe) and if the Democrats still haven’t developed an effective counter, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.


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