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Trump Thinks Democrats Have an Immigration Problem. Is He Right?

The Republicans are the party of the border wall. The Democrats' stance is much less clear.

Alex Wong/Getty

President Trump is ready to shut down the government over his central campaign promise—building a wall along the southern border—and he seems to believe he has the upper hand in this debate.

It would be audacious, to say the least, to blame Democrats for a government shutdown. The GOP controls the entire government—at least until Democrats take over the House next month—so Republicans would be shutting down their own government. And just last week, in a meeting with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump took ownership of a potential shutdown, saying, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. Because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

But the idea that Trump has a political advantage over Democrats on the broader issue of immigration is not so easily dismissed. Support for the border wall, while still a minority of Americans, recently hit an all-time high. Although Trump’s fear-mongering over the migrant caravan failed to block the blue wave in last month’s midterm elections, there are reasons to believe that immigration will be a potent, even decisive issue in 2020, just as it was in 2016.

And then there’s the question of where Democrats stand on the issue—which isn’t entirely clear. They’re betting that Trump’s radicalism makes them the de facto party of reasonable immigration policy. But the risk is that the opposite will happen: that in the absence of a clear, affirmative message from Democrats, the public will see Trump and the Republicans as the ones doing something rather than nothing to address America’s broken immigration system.

The Trump administration has, to some extent, made it easy for Democrats who are squeamish on the issue of immigration. Over the last two years, it has repeatedly adopted grotesque and racist policies—banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, separating migrant families at the border, sending 5,000 troops there to intimidate the most recent caravan—that Democrats can criticize without having to adopt a position themselves. But this strategy was seen as a major vulnerability for the opposition party, particularly in the lead-up to the midterms.

“The Democratic Party is generally pro-immigration,” Robert Draper wrote in The New York Times in October. “And yet 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.” The problem, Draper argued, was that there were few political incentives for Democrats to adopt pro-immigration policies. Voters simply cared about other issues, while many of the party’s core constituencies—particularly labor and environmental groups—were ambivalent at best.

For New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, this was a philosophical problem. “It’s a pressing, practical, and in some ways existential one,” he wrote about the migrant caravan. “It cuts to the core of whether the United States has to choose between being inhumane to the point of betraying some core moral principles and remaining a sovereign nation in control of who joins its population.” Sullivan approvingly quoted The Atlantic’s David Frum, who had recently stated, “If liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do.”

This framing echoes the attacks made by Trump and his allies: If Democrats are objecting to the detention or rejection of asylum-seekers at the border, then what is the alternative that they’re offering—to end border enforcement altogether, simply allowing anyone to enter the country? “Every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate has signed up for the open borders, and it’s a bill, it’s called the ‘open borders bill.’ What’s going on? And it’s written by, guess who? Dianne Feinstein,” Trump said at an October rally in Missouri, distorting a Feinstein’s bill to stop the government from separating migrant families. He predicted the bill would lead to “a tidal wave of drugs and crime [that] would pour into our nation like never, ever before.”

For the last several years, Democrats have adopted a defensive posture on immigration. “Democratic politicians have feared that supporting immigrants would result in being voted out of office,” wrote Draper, “specifically by conservative constituents who fear Muslim terrorists or undocumented Latinos taking advantage of public services, overrunning schools and hospitals.” Pressed by NBC’s Chuck Todd on comments he made that criticized illegal immigration in 2009, Schumer made the case that Democrats were not the party of open borders:

No Democrat believes that there’s no difference between legal and illegal immigration. We Democrats—we’re for a path to citizenship, however, not amnesty, a very difficult path to citizenship. In 2013, every single Democrat voted for it. A whole bunch of Republicans, led by John McCain, voted for it. And it was thwarted in the House. So we want, we want to create a path to citizenship for those illegally. But we don’t think they’re the same.

This is still largely the Democratic position on immigration: “common sense” border security measures, and some kind of path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It’s no accident that Schumer keeps bringing up 2013’s Gang of 8 bipartisan reform bill, which failed to pass: The Democrats’ immigration policy hasn’t really evolved since then. While some innovations have cropped up, notably “Abolish ICE,” the party’s position on immigration remains opaque. They’re against Trump’s policies, to be sure. But it’s rarely clear what precise policies the party supports.

That provides an opening for Republicans. Immigration is an extremely important issue to their base; Trump’s rise is largely attributable to his restrictionist rhetoric. It’s also important to the wider public: 21 percent rate immigration as the most important problem facing the country, more than any other issue. Thus, Republicans believe, perhaps rightly, that it’s a wedge issue. Even the border wall is gaining in popularity: 43 percent now support it, up from 38 percent in August (and 33 percent in April of last year). That said, Trump’s rhetoric also has caused support for immigration to increase over the last two years. Recent polling found that 28 percent of Americans believe the country should increase immigration, up from 21 percent in the summer of 2016—and only 14 percent in 2009. That number is now comparable to the number who believe it should decrease immigration, suggesting that a meaningful coalition of pro-immigration voters exists.

The midterms were a test case for 2020, to a point. The Republicans desperately sought to make illegal immigration their closing issue—and nearly succeeded, with stories about the migrant caravan reaching a crescendo in the days before the election. But Democrats didn’t take the bait, instead focusing on health care, which has become their singular issue. That strategy ultimately worked, as Democrats won a record share of the midterm popular vote and gained 40 seats in the House of Representatives. But immigration may have played a key role in helping the GOP maintain control of the Senate, where the party actually gained seats. This is the calculus that guides Republicans: Their immigration policies may be broadly unpopular, but they are popular in a number of key red and purple states.

By shutting down the government, Trump is betting that he can benefit politically by casting himself as the only person in Washington bold enough to act on immigration. There are good reasons to believe that this won’t work—on the shutdown specifically, anyway. Recent polling from Quinnipiac found that 51 percent of voters would blame him and his party more than Democrats, whereas 37 percent said the opposite. But Trump likely isn’t worrying about public opinion over the next few weeks or even months. He thinks a shutdown over the border wall will benefit him in two years, and right now, the evidence that he’s right is no less convincing than the evidence that he’s wrong.