Democrats’ Views on Immigration Have Changed—Dramatically

Democrats’ Views on Immigration Have Changed—Dramatically June 25, 2018

Back in 2016, when the election was on, a conservative Trump-supporter shared an article with me that was written by a Muslim American. I can’t seem to find the article now—I just looked—but in it the author stated that there had never been a better time to be Muslim in America. As evidence, she cited the outpouring of support she had begun receiving, even from random strangers, in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim comments. She had never felt more supported in America, she said, than she did now.

This article, of course, did not make the point the Trump-supporter who shared it seemed to think it made. It did, however, make me think, because there was an aspect of what the author said that rang very true indeed. The Muslim American community in the United States was under attack during Trump’s campaign in a way it had not been before, but it was also on the receiving end of a level of support it had not received before. That support did not justify or cancel out the attack—but it was not nothing, either.

This is something I’ve been pondering, in the past few weeks, as I’ve watched immigration capture the headlines and left-leaning friends’ facebook pages become dominated with stories of family separation and information about rallies. Immigrants are under attack in our country today in a way they have not been in the near past, and with dire consequences—but they are also receiving support today on a level that they have not seen in that same near past.


Indeed, immigration is receiving a higher level of support from Democrats today than it has for at least a generation:

Trump-supporters, in recent months, have called into question Democrats’ support for immigration by arguing that Trump is doing only what Obama did too. “Why didn’t you have a problem with this when Obama did it?” they ask. Trump, of course, is not doing what Obama did. Obama prioritized deporting criminal aliens (at least in theory) while Trump has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy. The children Obama detained were unaccompanied minors, not children ripped from their parents.

Trump uses dehumanizing rhetoric about immigration that is hugely different from the rhetoric used by Obama. Obama pushed for the DREAM Act and created DACA. Trump claims to support such measures, but then makes them contingent on his wall—something Obama never proposed. Trump has whipped up nativism and hatred against immigrants. Obama did not do these things. Trump is a xenophobic demagogue. Obama was manifestly not. Obama’s coalition also included large numbers of Latinos.

And yet, in his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama offered tough talk on immigration that sounds out of place among Democrats today:

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

Yes, Obama called for a pathway to citizenship—but wrapped in rhetoric that feels out of place today, only a few years later. As for Obama talking up his strong border security—there was a reason many immigrant rights groups called Obama the “deporter in chief.” His record on immigration was far from perfect. And where were we? We were complacent—or absent altogether.

When Obama was elected, only 48% of Democrats believed that immigrants strengthen the country. Today, that number has increased to 84%. Democrat support for immigration began to rise after Republicans filibustered the DREAM Act in late 2010. Many Democrats found that they could support undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children—if not their parents. Democrat support for immigrants went up further only at Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as rapists in 2015.

And so I wonder, sometimes, whether immigration isn’t undergoing something similar to the phenomenon that Muslim American woman whose essay I can no longer find wrote about—whether it is only now, when the Right has vocally and outrageously made immigrants its targets, that we pay attention. This does not invalidate the current upswell of support for immigration—better late than never, after all—but it should make us think about humans, and about social interaction, and about human nature.

We need to be straightforward about the fact that we as a party, and we as a people, have not always gotten this one right. We need to be transparent and honest—and apologetic. It should not have taken the fraught partisanship of this issue for so many to listen.

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