How Democrats Fall Short in Challenging Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Fervor

How Democrats Fall Short in Challenging Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Fervor


Photograph by Mark Wilson / Getty

Originally published by The New Yorker

The autocrat’s world is terrifying. He lives surrounded by enemies, shadowed by danger, forever perched on the precipice. The autocrat’s best trick is getting everyone to believe that we are all in peril. A year ago, Donald Trump devoted his Inaugural Address to enumerating the largely imaginary horrors of American life; on Tuesday, in his first State of the Union address, he boasted of keeping danger at bay and emphasized the need for ever greater protection, particularly against the “open borders [that] have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.” Immediately after, Representative Joseph Kennedy III delivered the official Democratic response with an eerily familiar sense of frightened urgency. “This Administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us,” Kennedy said, “they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.” The unofficial Democratic responses from Bernie Sanders, Maxine Waters, and others sounded less terrified, but did not overtly attack Trump’s central message about the danger of immigrants. The Spanish-language response delivered by the Virginia legislator Elizabeth Guzmán struck the more traditional notes of immigrants’ American dreams, but stopped short of a direct challenge to the Trumpian framing of immigration as a threat to the country.

The predicament is not exactly new: Democrats—like much of the Western left—have long found themselves in a position of merely mitigating the damage done by the endlessly ascendant anti-immigrant right. Proposing a cardinally different view of immigration, one that rejects both fear and pity, has become politically unimaginable. Trump did not create this dynamic, but he has brought it into new relief.

Trump has held immigrants responsible for all the fears in which he traffics, from terrorism to rape to economic uncertainty. A year ago, he unveiled a special hotline for reporting crimes allegedly committed by immigrants. During his State of the Union address, he framed his immigration-policy proposals in terms of crime: gang violence and drug trafficking.

In his rebuttal, Sanders met Trump halfway. “We need to seriously address the issue of immigration,” he said, as though it were generally accepted that the United States is currently dealing with unusually large numbers of immigrants or facing unusually burdensome questions of immigration. (It is not.) He brushed aside Trump’s proposed solutions to the imagined problem and went on to promise to protect Dreamers. Kennedy made the same promise.

So did Trump. The President’s four-part proposal, released a few days before the State of the Union address and summarized in the speech itself, promises a path to citizenship for Dreamers, along with a border wall, an end to the visa-lottery program, and severe cuts to family-based immigration. Trump repeated his promise to move to a merit-based immigration system. This is the other logical framework he applies to the issue of immigration: the right to enter this country must be earned.

The Democrats grant Trump this premise, too. Kennedy and Sanders both said, in effect, that Dreamers have earned the right to stay in the United States by growing up here; focussing on Dreamers is a way of avoiding a larger conversation about immigration. Kennedy engaged Trump in a rhetorical tug-of-war about the Dreamers: where Trump said that “Americans are dreamers, too”—implying that the aspirations of native-born Americans are more important than those of immigrants—Kennedy switched to Spanish to offer assurance to the Dreamers: “Ustedes son parte de nuestra historia.” You are part of our story. The phrasing seemed unintentionally to reaffirm the you/us divide, but the bigger issue is that the official Democratic response did not address immigration beyond the issue of Dreamers—because, it appears, congressional Democrats have little to say on the topic.

The standard Democratic objection to anti-immigrant policies is that immigrants are good people who benefit the economy. This was the basic message of Guzmán’s speech. There are variations and amendments to this argument: not all immigrants are terrorists; immigrants commit fewer crimes than non-immigrants; they serve in our military. All of this is, essentially, the same meritocratic logic that Trump is proposing; they are merely haggling over the price.

A different approach to thinking about immigration would frame the issue in purely moral terms rather than largely economic ones. It may address American responsibility in a world in which tens of millions of people have been displaced by war, famine, and violence. This would mean talking not only about the Haitian or Salvadoran refugees who are being deported from the United States but also about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Yemeni refugees who have no hope of entering the one country in the world best situated to give them shelter. It may address the future of a planet that is slowly becoming unsuitable for human habitation, and the American responsibility to those who lose their homes as a result. It may even question the premise that the dumb luck of having been born in the United States gives a group of people the right to decide who may enter the premises.

Trump, of course, is obsessed with birthright, whether it concerns his children’s wealth or Barack Obama’s Presidency. By instinct, he is particularly sensitive to potential challenges to Americans’ birthright to be the gatekeepers of this land. He has repeatedly singled out the visa-lottery program, which accounts for a very small percentage of people who immigrate to the United States, but is the one program that exposes the random nature of borders and of the distribution of passports. Of course, randomness is, among other things, terrifying—especially if you have convinced yourself and others that the world is full of danger, and that the purpose of politics is protection.

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