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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Judis: Why Dems Must Tread Carefully on Immigration Policy

At The American Prospect Long Form, John Judis has an article, “The Two Sides of Immigration Policy: We need to legalize the undocumented already here, but open borders will mean lower wages for American workers,” which merits a thoughtful read by Democrats.  Judis, author of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, writes:

Democrats and liberals have rightly rejected Trump’s words and deeds. And they have reasserted the need to find an eventual path to citizenship for the 12 million [undocumented immigranrs]. But in responding to Trump’s xenophobia, many have gone to the opposite extreme and denied, in effect, that a problem really exists. They have consistently downplayed or denied that there is any urgent need to stanch the flow of unauthorized immigration. The party’s 2016 platform plank on immigration gave short shrift to the problem of illegal immigration, merely calling for law enforcement that is “humane and consistent with our values.”

…Democrats believe, of course, that in downplaying illegal immigration and insisting that immigration benefits everyone, they are standing up for their own constituents. They think that working-class Americans who backed Trump on this issue failed to understand their own interests. But Democrats are wrong in this case. While many American businesses and the well-to-do have clearly benefited from the massive influx of unskilled immigrants, many middle- and working-class Americans, including such key Democratic constituents as African Americans, have not.

Judis goes on to present evidence that, while Latino voters favor Democrats, their views on illegal immigration reform are not far different from American voters in general. He notes,

…pluralities or majorities of Hispanics are leery of illegal immigration, and want it restricted. They look with disfavor on the massive immigration of unskilled workers. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 74 percent of Hispanics favor and only 24 percent oppose “tightening security at U.S. borders,” and 65 percent favor and only 34 percent oppose “requiring business owners to check the immigration status of workers they hire.”

Reviewing some recent polling data, Judis concludes “In sum, the Democratic stance on these issues is not only unpopular with most voters, but with many Hispanics as well. Except as a response to Trump’s xenophobia, the Democrats’ response makes no political sense, and is not benefiting their own working-class constituents.”

In his NYT op-ed, “Trump Has Got Democrats Right Where He Wants Them,” Thomas B. Edsall writes, “For a Democratic Party whose electoral strength depends on Hispanic support (64 percent of Latinos identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party in 2016) preventing the deportation of the Dreamers and providing them with legal status has become a matter of political necessity.” Edsall also notes, however, that “The greatest unknown is how immigration reform will influence the voting behavior of the white working class.”

Noting the Democratic belief that “large-scale immigration of unskilled workers will help the Democrats politically and hurt the Republicans,” Judis argues that “Hispanics may not prove to be a dependable Democratic constituency,” as they “move up the economic ladders.” Further, “Republican candidates for governor in Texas and the Senate in North Carolina have almost broken even among Hispanic voters.”

Judis argues that “the continual surge of low-skilled immigrants into the United States will contribute to an impoverished underclass that holds down wages and creates welfare costs for small towns and states.” He notes that  “The existence of that underclass has helped fuel bitter cultural-economic conflicts that have riven America over the last 30 years. It undercuts any promise of an American social democracy or extension of New Deal liberalism…”

Democrats have to tread a policy that rejects both nativism and open borders, while protecting the Dreamers and demonstrating genuine concern for secure borders and decent wages for all workers. As Judis concludes,

What, then, can the Democratic Party do? On the one hand, it is reasonable to push for a path to citizenship, and especially to prevent the cruel deportation of immigrants who were brought here illegally as children and often literally have no home country to return to. It’s also important to defend the labor rights of all residents of the United States, even those without papers, and to resist wholesale raids. But Democrats make both a policy mistake and a political one when they become cheerleaders for illegal immigration and for expanded immigration in general, while denying the plain fact that in many cases immigrants do indeed lower the wages of local workers. Building a wall is bad policy, but so is ignoring the plain realities.

It’s a narrow path, which will require nuanced policies to insure fairness for both immigrants and American workers. Republicans will miss no opportunity to distort Democratic immigration policies as extravagant indulgences that hurt American workers. To win in 2018, as well as 2020, Democrats will have to demonstrate that their party provides the best hope for American workers, as well as immigrants.

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