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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Dems Can Navigate Immigration Policy to Win in 2020

President Trump’s racist immigration policies have kept him popular with a disturbingly-large segment of G.O.P. rank and file and elected officials. But he has failed to sway a majority of Americans, who now view immigrants as a positive force in our society. The latter trend provides Democrats with an edge in upcomming elections — if they promote policies that line up well with public opinion on immigration issues.

In his FiveThirtyEight post, “Can Democrats Win On Immigration Policy In 2020?,” Geoffrey Skelley defines the challenge Democrats face:

Immigration is likely going to be a major topic in the 2020 election. From issuing a travel ban on many majority-Muslim countries to shutting down the government while seeking funding for a border wall, President Trump has made immigration perhaps the central defining issue of his presidency. And Democrats have so far successfully punted on tackling the issue head-on, opting to try to block Trump’s policies rather than propose a full-fledged alternative agenda.

However, survey data suggests that public attitudes toward immigration may be somewhat more in line with Democrats’ positions than Republicans’, so Democrats might do well in 2020 if they campaign on their vision for overhauling the immigration system. Yet this move still carries risks…

Skelley notes further, that “Some views held by members in the left wing of the party — like abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — don’t poll well with voters and could be particularly alienating among Americans who are worried about border security…This January, 62 percent of Americans said that immigrants strengthen the country, while just 28 percent said they felt that immigrants were a burden, according to the Pew Research Center. But as you can see in the chart below, this is pretty much a complete reversal from where the public stood when Pew first asked this question in 1994.”

Skelley adds that a 2018 Gallup Poll indicated that “a record share of Americans — 75 percent — thought immigration was a good thing for the country.” However, cautions Skelley, “just because more Americans have a positive attitude toward immigration doesn’t mean they want to see more immigration. In early 2019, 30 percent of Americans told Gallup they wanted immigration levels to increase while 31 percent said they wanted levels to decrease and 37 percent said they should be kept the same.”

Skelley goes on to cite several polls which show that most Americans believe border security is a major concern. But most Americans don’t see Trump’s wall as the overarching priority: “Gallup found that 75 percent of Americans favored hiring significantly more border patrol agents, while Fox News found that 68 percent of Americans favored spending more on border security measures other than building a wall.” In addition, “most Americans oppose more barrier construction on the U.S.-Mexico border, and so Democrats have fought to limit the amount of funding available for that project.”

Trump’s family separation policies are highly unpopular, according to polls, and his national emergency declaration was opposed by 64 percent of respondents in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. Also, “just 30 percent of Americans said they wanted it to be harder for undocumented immigrants to request asylum” while 61 percent said they wanted assylum policies to be “left as is,” or made “easier.”

Recent polls idicate that Democrats would be wise not to advocate abolishing ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement), which political analyst Ruy Teixeira includes among “The Four Don’ts of the 2020 Democratic Campaign.” Dems should instead urge reforming the agency and support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

As for the best policy mix for Democrats, the overall challenge is “to craft an immigration strategy that’s both humane and “also takes border enforcement seriously,” according to Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN. Instead of just blasting away at Trump’s immigration policies, Dems must pass comprehensive immigration legislation of their own in the House — even though it will be killed in the senate — so they can make a credible claim to be the only party that has a serious plan for both border security and sound immigration policies.

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