Can Democrats Win On Immigration Policy In 2020?


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. 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.
First, let’s take a look at how American attitudes toward immigration have changed over the past 25 years and how that could work to Democrats’ advantage. 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.

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Back then, 63 percent of Americans said immigrants were a burden and 31 percent said they strengthened the country. In 2018, Gallup found that a record share of Americans — 75 percent — thought immigration was a good thing for the country. Ironically, some of the increase in pro-immigrant attitudes that pollsters are recording is probably attributable to Trump’s presidency. As the chart above shows, the percentage of Americans who told Pew that immigrants “strengthen” society shot up during and after the 2016 campaign and has remained above 60 percent since Trump took office.
But 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.
Many Americans are also concerned about border security. A 2018 Harvard-Harris poll found that 61 percent of registered voters believed that current border security was inadequate and 39 percent felt it was adequate. This year, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that just 34 percent of adults thought the border was secure while 50 percent felt it was not secure. Two other polls from earlier this year found that Americans supported increased spending on border security — 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.
These mixed signals voters seem to be sending in the polls have meant that Democratic leaders have proceeded cautiously on immigration reform. Since capturing the House in the 2018 midterm elections, the party has eschewed a sweeping overhaul and instead has focused on narrower policies that are relatively popular. For example, 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. Democrats have also used their oversight powers to challenge the Trump administration’s extremely unpopular family-separation policy. They also voted in February to block Trump’s national emergency declaration, which he made in order appropriate funds to build a wall on the southern border; Trump ultimately vetoed Congress’s attempt to overturn the emergency declaration, but a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 64 percent of the country opposes the national emergency order.
One larger piece of immigration legislation that Democratic House leaders have pushed is a bill that would provide legal protections and a path to citizenship for as many as 2.5 million18 undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who either came to the country as children or came fleeing conflicts or natural disasters in their home countries. And public opinion suggests Democrats might not be afraid to agitate for these protections: In 2018, Gallup found that 83 percent of Americans favored offering a chance to become U.S. citizens to undocumented immigrants who had come to the country as children. And just 30 percent of Americans said they wanted it to be harder for undocumented immigrants to request asylum while 34 percent said they wanted the process to be “left as is,” according to this week’s ABC News/Washington Post survey. (Another 27 percent said they wanted the asylum process to be easier.)
How should Democrats handle immigration?
Opposing Trump’s unpopular positions on immigration and fighting for legal protections for some undocumented immigrants has proven to be safe political ground for Democrats. Now it might be time for Democratic presidential candidates to expand on this approach and start tackling the issue of border security in a similar way. Simon Rosenberg, president of a liberal think tank called NDN, argues that Democrats should take advantage of the fact that Trump has attached himself to unpopular immigration stances that didn’t pay off in the 2018 midterms. “Democrats just have to be clear on what their positions are on the border and [border] enforcement.” And ignoring concerns about border enforcement could prove unwise for Democrats — for instance, a January survey from ABC News/Washington Post found that 54 percent of Americans thought the country was doing too little to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Rosenberg said he thought Democrats could find a way to craft an immigration strategy that’s both humane and “also takes border enforcement seriously.”
Others stress that Democrats can’t just respond to Trump’s unpopular approach to immigration — the party needs its own comprehensive approach. Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, told FiveThirtyEight that “Democrats need to be prepared to talk about the issue — not just reacting to what Trump says, but leading with some solutions to the complex and varied immigration issues the country is facing.” Barreto said he thinks immigration can be a winning issue not only with Latinos but also with the public at large, and that House Democrats should use their majority to pass a comprehensive reform package. Even though such legislation would almost certainly fail in the GOP-controlled Senate, the attempt would give Democratic presidential candidates something to refer to as they formulate their stances on immigration.
But others in the left wing of the party, including some presidential candidates, are pushing for even more far-reaching — and controversial — changes to the immigration system. In the Trump era, “abolish ICE” has become a popular refrain on the left, and the agency has attracted intense criticism regarding how it handles its duties. And it’s still early, but at least one presidential candidate has taken a stance on the issue: Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro put together an extensive immigration platform, and as part of that plan, he proposed shifting ICE’s arrest and deportation responsibilities to other agencies.
Other presidential candidates have also laid out ideas for changing the agency: Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for ICE to be restructured, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren said last year that it should be replaced “with something that reflects our morality and that works.” However, efforts to diminish — or even disband — the agency could be politically risky because Americans generally want to keep it around. A Morning Consult/Politico survey last year found that 54 percent of voters favored keeping the agency in place while 25 percent wanted to get rid of it, and a 2018 Fox News survey showed that a plurality opposed abolishing the agency.
Aside from Castro, candidates in the 2020 Democratic field haven’t offered many detailed positions on immigration policy, so most of them remain something of an enigma. “There’s a risk that Democrats respond clumsily and ineffectively because they have to craft a new strategy,” Rosenberg said. Given that the public’s attitude toward immigrants has become more and more positive and that most people lack confidence in Trump’s ability to effectively handle immigration policy, Democrats could make immigration a winning issue in 2020 — if they are able to balance promises of reform with concerns about border security. Time will tell.

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