Dear Media: Both Sides Are Not to Blame

One side is focused on protecting people, the other on preserving power

As we careen down the homestretch of the 2018 silly season, the political punditry once again gets lazy (or scared to call it straight) and reduces important policy issues – like immigration — to raw political considerations. Filtering immigration through a “bothsidesism” political prism projects a highly misleading reflection. It breeds cynicism about an issue with profound human implications, warps the public’s view and understanding of the issue, and avoids assigning blame for gridlock and division where it’s due.

Immigration is, of course, susceptible to politicization, especially against a backdrop of changing demographics and heightened economic anxiety. Changes to the culture and composition of a community can provide space for demagogues to exploit tensions. Policy debates about “outsiders” can quickly devolve into zero-sum abstractions: when policies are falsely framed as providing benefits — jobs, education, healthcare — for immigrants at the expense of citizens, the interests of the outsiders never prevail.

Power dynamics provide extra fodder for “in-group, out-group” political gamesmanship. Non-citizens have no direct electoral power since they cannot vote. And naturalized and native born Latinos, having been largely ignored by the party machines, vote at sub-average rates. That lack of electoral muscle leaves them vulnerable to marginalization and an array of political machinations.

But reductive political analysis that treats the two parties as equally complicit in kicking the issue around like a political football ignores the fact that only one side is playing that game. Pro-reform advocates and politicians press the agenda out of concern for the human beings and the core values that are at stake, not for partisan advantage. Opponents of reform either harbor strong racial and ideological opposition to the demographic changes that immigration has brought, or see political fool’s gold in having a population to scapegoat and an issue to demagogue.

A young girl at a “Know Your Rights” workshop for immigrant families in 2017.

Twenty years ago, immigration reform was a bipartisan issue in Congress, albeit one with heavier Democratic support and more Republican opposition. But as the United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollarsin immigration and border enforcement without corresponding legal reforms, the system’s deficiencies have imposed a mounting human toll on communities across the country. And the two parties have embraced starkly divergent responses.

We currently have around 11 million undocumented immigrants living across the United States. That is basically the population of Ohio. Close to 70% of them have lived here for more than 10 years and some 17 million people live in mixed-status family units with at least one undocumented immigrant. Several million immigrants have been deported over the last 15 years and nearly all who remain are living in fear. And when 5% of the workforce and millions of American families are vulnerable to separation by expulsion and all that comes with it, we are not facing an isolated crisis. We are confronted with a threat to the stability of our communities, our economy, and our democracy.

The Democratic Party’s response to this deepening national crisis has been to coalesce behind the pro-reform agenda of humane, common-sense solutions. That includes creating a path to legal status and eventually citizenship for undocumented immigrants, ending family separations, scaling back the immigration detention system, and welcoming refugees. In the spirit of pursuing bipartisan compromise, it also has, perhaps naively, accepted significant ramp-ups in immigration enforcement.

By contrast, federally elected Republican officials have been sucked into a restrictionist political vortex created by extremist cabals within the party. A full embrace of nativism as a pillar of the party’s national political strategy was cemented by Trump’s successful run to the White House. And now the party’s platform revolves around massive expansion of an immigration enforcement program already on steroids, accelerated deportations, cutting legal immigration, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and ending refugee resettlement.

A protest at San Francsico International Airport following the administration’s 2017 executive order banning travelers from some majority-Muslim countries.

Yet some of the reporting around the issue mistakenly treats these competing responses as equally driven by partisan considerations. One prominent example of this reductive political reporting is The New York Times Magazine’s October 14 cover story by Robert Draper curiously titled “The Democrats Have an Immigration Problem.” Draper’s piece sketches Democratic engagement in congressional debates around immigration policy over the last 12 years, links it to 2018 developments, and concludes that the party is ambivalent about immigration. At best, that conclusion lacks critical context. At worst, it provides a misleading guide to the current politics of immigration and ignores the human and moral underpinnings of the debate.

Draper acknowledges that “the Democratic Party is generally pro-immigration,” but argues that “many of its elected officeholders remain deeply wary of saying so and especially conflicted about how to address the flaws in the country’s immigration system — or whether to address them at all.” But the clearest statement of where elected officials stand on these issues is how they vote. And the arc of votes over the last 12 years on inclusive, pro-immigrant policies points to a party unified like never before.

Indeed, one need only look to the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform billthat passed the Senate with all 52 Democrats voting in favor (along with 14 Republicans and two independents). Or look at the Senate votes earlier this year to provide a solution for the imperiled DACA program. The most pro-immigrant proposal that made it to the Floor, the bipartisan measure co-sponsored by Senators Coons and McCain, garnered YES votes from 46 out of the 47 Democrats (only 4 out of the 53 Republicans voted in favor).

Activists at the Capitol following the administration’s rescission of the DACA program.

Do tensions around tactics continue to exist among Democrats? Of course, but that is not “a problem”. To the contrary, it is healthy and desirable for a forward looking party to grapple with questions about forging the right balance of deference to rhetoric, policy, and public support. For example, whether Democrats call for reforms to, or a complete overhaul of, Immigration Customs & Enforcement (ICE) is not evidence of problematic divisions. To the contrary, it actually shows a clear consensus that ICE is out of control and needs to be reined in — whether that is starting from scratch or imposing new accountability guardrails is a legitimate debate.

While alarms about Democratic disunity ring hollow, it is curious that more ink hasn’t been spilled about the real political immigration story of the moment: the speed with which the GOP has gravitated toward the dangerous and divisive anti-immigrant pole that Trump has planted — and what that means for the future of the party. Indeed, there will be a non-frivolous argument come November 6 that aligning themselves with Trump’s politics of inciting fear and fueling resentment by an aggrieved white majority against the ominous “other” cost them control of the House.

Just think about the GOP’s 2013 autopsy, which declared that the party’s future depended on broadening the tent and embracing pro-immigration policies. Consider the party’s flailing response to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and family separation crises that this administration has created. Despite controlling both chambers of Congress, they never came close to coalescing around a strategy for addressing those challenges despite overwhelming public opposition to both actions. In fact, the Republican controlled House has been so internally conflicted that it found itself one signature away from a Republican-led discharge petition that would have bypassed the leadership and brought progressive legislation to the Floor in opposition to the majority’s restrictionist agenda.

The U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

The real political question is how quickly this swift embrace of nativism will sow the seeds for the party’s long-term demise at the federal level. Structural flaws in our political and electoral system continue to provide some insulation — for now — against the will of the majority. But the demographic changes and attendant transformation of the electorate that the GOP seeks to forestall are irreversible. The 2013 autopsy provided a blueprint for grappling with that reality. Instead, the party’s elected leaders chose an alternative path and struck the ultimate Faustian bargain: accept complicity in Trump’s dangerous dehumanization of immigrants and refugees in exchange for the power to govern, all the while knowing that it will be the party’s rending.

Consolidated Democratic unity behind a pro-reform immigration agenda, by contrast, is based on a set of simple of beliefs: the belief that immigrants and immigration are good for the country; that an inclusive, welcoming society is stronger than a walled off nation; and that diversity is one of our great assets, not an existential threat. Those are values-based beliefs, not partisan-motivated calculations, and it just so happens that a strong majority of Americans share those values.

Contrary to the cynical, false-equivalency reporting that partisan politics is the singular driver of immigration policy positions, this issue reinforces the old adage that good policy can indeed be good politics. Unfortunately for the country, only one party has internalized that lesson; the other has elected to weaponize hate. On November 6, we’ll see whether the focus on people or politics prevails.

Managing Director of Immigration at the Emerson Collective. Advocate for humanity, sports junky, 1/2-assed Buddhist, proud papa and spouse. Views obv my own.