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How Democrats Became Stuck On Immigration

In 2019, when more than two dozen Democrats were vying for the party’s presidential nomination, they all seemed to agree on one thing: They opposed former President Donald Trump’s draconian immigration policies. Beyond that, though, it got messy. One camp of more progressive Democrats, helmed by former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary Julián Castro, advocated for repealing a law that makes unauthorized border crossings a crime. Other candidates expressed unease with the idea, raising concerns about what that would mean for human traffickers or drug smugglers crossing the border. 

But the fact that Democratic presidential candidates were discussing decriminalizing border crossings still represented a significant break. Over the years, Democrats have moved to the left on immigration, and Democratic voters now hold more progressive views on immigration than both their Republican equivalents and one-time Democratic Party leaders like former President Barack Obama. But as the 2019 presidential primary debate shows, there’s still a lot of debate in the party on just how far left to go. Democratic strategists and immigration experts I’ve talked to say it’s hard to understand why immigration remains such an issue for Democrats without first factoring in how the party’s relationship to immigration has changed and what that has meant for competing factions within the party. Understanding these trends also helps explain why Democrats don’t really campaign on immigration, and why this makes President Biden’s decision about how to address the current increase of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border an even more complicated situation for a party that doesn’t want to risk its congressional majority next year. 

Today, it’s easy to lump the Democrats into two camps: moderate and progressive. But it wasn’t always so straightforward. Back in the 1980s and 90s, when the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. began to tick up, there were two main schools of thought in the Democratic Party regarding immigration: A civil rights wing aimed at advancing equal opportunity in housing, education and voting rights and, as such, was pro-immigration, and a dueling labor wing that was wary — or even hostile — toward immigrants whom they worried would replace union workers or undermine working conditions. 

But immigration wasn’t the polarizing issue it is today, so it wasn’t a big talking point among Democrats. (The party’s 1984 platform didn’t even include a section on immigration.) Republicans, however, were talking about immigration more and started to push for stricter immigration measures, including building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This, coupled with an effort to crack down on crime, created a dynamic where the GOP was perceived as the party that was “tough on crime,” while Democrats were depicted as “soft” on crime

That changed for Democrats, though, with the election of President Bill Clinton, who ran on a pro-law enforcement platform and criticized his opponent, George H.W. Bush, for cutting local law enforcement aid during his tenure. (Clinton doubled down on this approach, later running on a reelection platform that said, “We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.”) And it was under Clinton that the law that in essence created the immigration enforcement system as we know it today was passed. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act authorized greater resources for border enforcement, added penalties for undocumented immigrants who committed a crime in the U.S., and placed the onus on asylum seekers to provide the documentation needed to support their applications. 

In many ways, Democrats’ decision to get tough on immigration was part of a larger effort to push tougher law enforcement policies. In this same period, Clinton also signed into law the 1996 welfare reform act, which he said would end “welfare as we know it” and made assistance far more temporary and dependent on employment. There was also the now-infamous 1994 crime bill, which accelerated mass incarceration in the U.S. 

Cristobal Ramón, an independent immigration policy consultant, told me that Democrats have gradually moved on from these positions, but stressed how interconnected the laws from then were. “The dominant political view,” Ramón told me was, “that deterrence was the only way to stop violations of the law, including the nation’s immigration laws.” But these laws have left Democrats with an uncomfortable legacy, as they disproportionately affected and criminalized people of color. 

In the early 2000s, though, a few things shifted in the Democratic Party. For starters, the share of the party’s voters expressing concern about immigrants and refugees entering the U.S. dipped after the number of migrants entering the U.S. declined substantially. Plus, “tough on crime” policies were expensive and their impact was minimal

As time went on, the older divides in the party fell away. While there were still some concerns among Democrats about the impact of immigration on the American worker, the pro-union wing of the party became more pro-immigrant after mounting pressure from other unions, in particular service-worker unions, many of whose members are Hispanic. The AFL-CIO also reversed its anti-immigrant positions, calling in 2000 for undocumented immigrants to be granted citizenship. Another major development during the latter part of this decade was an omnibus immigration reform bill Republicans pushed through Congress in 2006, which didn’t become law, but would have emphasized border security and raised penalties for illegal immigration. 

This is also when Republican and Democratic voters began to dramatically split on immigration, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. In the mid-2000s, the two parties were pretty close in their views. When asked in 2003 if immigrants make the country stronger, 47 percent of Democrats and people who lean Democratic and 46 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republicans agreed. Now, though, nearly 90 percent of Democrats feel that way compared to just 40 percent of Republicans.

But despite this seismic move to the left on immigration, there are still important divisions within the Democratic Party, many of which have roots in the party’s past. The two major camps we see elected officials fall into today are the establishment, pro-immigrant wing, which tends to include moderate Democrats, including those who hail from purple districts and/or live along the U.S.-Mexico border and the progressive wing, which includes members who generally see the Democratic Party as too centrist and too cautious.

There is one thing both wings seem to be united on, though: advancing the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which lets undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children apply for renewable work permits and avoid deportation. There’s been some movement on this program as of late:  All House Democrats — plus nine Republicans — voted in favor of the Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. (It’s less clear how the bill will fare in the Senate.) 

But that’s about all the two wings have in common. The establishment, pro-immigrant wing of the party tends to approach immigration from a more economic-based lens, according to Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Women in Law and former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor. This wing is more likely to be more concerned about the impact of immigrants on the American worker and support limited deportation for certain immigrants (like those in the U.S. without documentation who have committed a crime). 

Many elected officials who fall into this group are making tough political calculations. For some (think members like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California liberal who has been pro-immigration crackdowns), the fact that they fall in this wing of the party is more a reflection of their moderate politics. But for other members — hailing from districts that aren’t as Democratic, and from states where migrant influxes are more pronounced and Latino voters have shown some signs of moving toward the GOP — the fact they fall in this wing is more a reflection of their political reality. 

Those who live closest to the U.S.-Mexico border most directly experience the disruptions of unauthorized immigration. As a result, the politics around immigration are complicated. Many Texas Latinos, for example, embrace enforcement-minded views on immigration, even if they also empathize with the migrants. Democrats in this camp are unlikely to support broad overhauls of the immigration system for fear of being alienated from their constituencies. Going too far on immigration reform can also mean they’re depicted as supporting “open borders,” a phrase that has become a right-wing talking point.

Members of the progressive wing, meanwhile, do want a more humanitarian-based immigration system focused less on border enforcement. Many want to abolish or dramatically restructure U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a rallying cry that became popular among some Democrats amid some of Trump’s most stringent immigration policies — and they want the federal government to stop deporting immigrants. They also want to broaden immigrants’ access to social safety net programs

Democrats remain at odds over how best to move forward. Biden’s approach has so far been to roll back what Trump did, but he is ultimately going to have to pick a side within his party or work toward some sort of compromise. That won’t be easy, though, especially when it comes to handling the current issue at the border. For starters, he’d likely need Republican support to get anything immigration-related passed (budget reconciliation might not be an option, given parliamentarian rules, unless immigration measures are tacked onto another bill) and the GOP doesn’t look likely to cooperate with Democrats

Plus, whatever action Biden does take risks angering one of the aforementioned wings of his party. If he moves too far left, he risks losing moderate voters, but at the same time, if he doesn’t move left enough, he risks breaking his promise of a “fair and humane” immigration overhaul

Immigration also presents a broader electoral challenge for Biden. While he gets high marks on his overall job as president, handling of the economy and COVID-19 pandemic, according to a mid-March CBS/YouGov poll, only 52 percent of U.S. adults approve of the way he is handling immigration, among the lowest of the issues YouGov polled.

“Anytime you have competing factions, it can do one of two things: push people to the middle to find compromise or result in a stalemate,” Stidvent said. And ultimately, as Stidvent cautioned, a Democratic Party that is divided on how best to handle immigration doesn’t help either party. That said, it wouldn’t be completely surprising if some of the more moderate Democrats did propose some type of compromise with Republicans. (House Democrats passed two bills earlier this year that would offer legal protections for millions of undocumented immigrants, including DACA recipients, and Senate Democrats, hamstrung by the filibuster, might have to find middle ground on Republicans’ demands for more border enforcement if they want their bills to get to Biden’s desk.) But with the current makeup of Congress and the drastically opposing views on immigration reform both within and between the parties, any type of comprehensive immigration reform will be tricky.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.