Magazine article In These Times

What Democrats Get Wrong about Immigration Policy

Magazine article In These Times

What Democrats Get Wrong about Immigration Policy

Article excerpt

Democrats and Republicans have long forged a de facto policy consensus on immigration. Yes, Democrats condemn Trump's wall and his family separation policy, but they pivot to talk about security and control in ways indistinguishable from GOP talking points.

On January 3, their first day in power, House Democrats passed a spending bill that included $1.3 billion in new border fencing, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) touted as "smart, effective border security." When Democratic presidential contender Beto O'Rourke said he would take down El Paso's border wall, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) responded: "We can't have open borders. We need to have border security, all nations do." Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) writes on his Senate website, "We must continually modernize our border security measures."

Both parties recognize that temporary guest workers and undocumented laborers are important to a number of industries, as well as services (including domestic labor and elder care), of which politicians, donors and constituents personally avail themselves. In some industries, like harvesting, fishing and summer resort work, immigrants are often the only willing labor available.

But in the eyes of employers, the chief advantage of immigrant labor is that immigrants are often easier to coerce and control than citizens. The promise of available work encourages a large number of people to immigrate, but Democratic policymakers are wary that appearing to let too many people in will allow political opponents to stoke nativist sentiments. So the United States pays Mexico (through the billion-dollar Merida Initiative) to stop some people before they get to the border, then menaces and detains the subset that U.S. Border Patrol apprehends in the act of crossing, and then sends Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to round up and deport some of those who get through. These brutal policies keep the unofficial workforce stable, at around 8 million over the past 10 years, and keep undocumented and guest workers fearful enough to refrain from availing themselves of workplace protections.

Even the most hardline Republican-authored immigration bills avoid imposing serious penalties on employers who use undocumented labor, and have included provisions to expand the guest workforce while further cutting off its access to labor protections. Democrats are more likely to tout immigration as a public good, then substantively align themselves with Republicans on border security and internal enforcement. The present debate over whether we should have a physical wall along the border (as preferred by House Republicans) or a "smart wall" of high-tech surveillance (as preferred by House Democrats) is simply one of cost-effectiveness, not a real difference of opinion.

The blatant racism of the Trump administration has motivated more members of the public to learn about the operation of our immigration system and drawn attention to its irrationalities and cruelties. Some Democrats, including Sanders, Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), briefly seemed to join the call to "abolish ICE" in response to family separations in summer 2018, but when pressed for detail, variously advocated replacing or restructuring the agency. A bill by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) to abolish the agency went nowhere.

For now, Democrats are in resistance mode, defying-at least rhetorically- Trump's most extreme proposals. But very soon, as the 2020 presidential primaries get underway, Democrats will be pressed to put forth a plan for when they are in power. At a moment when there's real appetite for better immigration policy, it's incumbent upon progressives to present the Democrats with a vision that goes beyond the anemic compromises of the past.


XENOPHOBIC AND FEARMONGERING ARGUMENTS against immigration have become easier for most people on the Left to discredit as Trump presents them in their rawest form. …

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