The Democrats Are Confused on Immigration

The Democrats Are Confused on Immigration

Originally published by The New York Times

The Democratic Party no longer has a clear policy on immigration.

It used to, not so long ago. The party’s leaders knew what they favored and felt comfortable saying so. Their platform generally included: 1) a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to this country illegally but had since obeyed the law; 2) deportation of undocumented immigrants who had since broken the law in significant ways; 3) fairly robust border security and investigation of companies employing undocumented immigrants, to hold down current and future levels of illegal immigration.

Besides favoring these policies, Democrats were also willing to talk about the benefits of limiting immigration and of assimilation.

Consider this 2015 statement from Bernie Sanders: “What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy … I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”

Or this 2006 line from Barack Obama, in his book, “The Audacity of Hope” : “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment.”

Or this comment last year from Hillary Clinton: “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration.” It earned her immediate condemnation from progressives and a scathing story in The Times.

I understand why the Democratic Party has moved to the left on immigration policy over the past few years. It is, in significant part, an honorable reaction to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant racism and a desire to stand up for immigrants during his presidency. The Trump administration has separated immigrant children from their parents, and Democrats are trying to protect those families.

What’s less clear to me is exactly what the Democratic Party’s new position on immigration is.

Questions to answer

Among the questions that I’d like Democrats to answer:

  • What kind of border security do you believe in? Do you favor the policies Obama put in place to reduce illegal immigration — or a different approach?
  • Do you believe that immigrants who enter this country illegally should be allowed to stay? If not, which categories of undocumented immigrants should be at risk of deportation? (In a 2016 debate, Clinton and Sanders didn’t offer clear answers when Univision’s Jorge Ramos asked similar questions.)
  • What do you believe should happen to future levels of legal immigration? And what should happen to the mix of different categories of immigration? Should family connections play as large a role as they now do? Should workplace skills continue to play a small role?
  • Do you believe, as Sanders suggested in 2015, that more immigration can reduce wages , especially for lower-income workers and recent immigrants themselves?

My own view is that the country benefits from significant limits on immigration. As David Frum notes in a recent cover story for The Atlantic, immigration levels were quite low for much of the 20th century — from roughly the 1910s through the 1970s.

The slowdown helped many of the immigrants who arrived in the waves before 1910 (including parts of my family). They faced less competition in the labor market. Labor unions were more easily able to grow, because they were organizing an increasingly assimilated workforce. The immigration slowdown played a role in the great income surge of the post-World War II decades.

Today, I’d favor a policy with a lot of similarities to the Democrats’ platform of the Obama years, including humane treatment of immigrants already here plus tight border security. I’d change the mix of immigration, to let in fewer low-skills immigrants and more high-skills immigrants. Doing so has the potential to reduce inequality and lift economic growth.

I recognize that this platform is probably too conservative for many Democrats. But high levels of immigration, stretching over many decades, is not an American tradition. It’s something new, and it brings both upsides and downsides.

For anyone who wants to think through the subject, I recommend Frum’s article. (The politician quotations above come from it.) For critiques of Frum’s piece, see Nancy LeTourneau in Washington Monthly and Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion.

If nothing else, I’d urge Democrats to look at public opinion on immigration with an open mind. The polling isn’t as favorable as some of the recent conversation on the left has suggested. In a recent Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans called illegal immigration a critical threat and another 30 percent called it an important threat.

I wouldn’t call it either of those. But I do think it’s folly — both substantively and politically — to pretend that more immigration is always better than less. And I think it’s a mistake for Democrats to be so unclear about what their party’s immigration agenda is.

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