Originally published by The New York Times
Plunge into the progressive discourse on immigration, and you’ll quickly hear that it’s not enough just to legalize America’s 11 million unauthorized migrants, however cherished the goal may be and however long it has eluded reach.
Outraged at a president who has gone as far as seizing toddlers from their undocumented parents, a progressive vanguard seeks to decriminalize border crossing, ban deportations, end detention, “abolish ICE” (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and make undocumented migrants eligible for government aid.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the progressive standard-bearer, likens detention facilities to “concentration camps.” Eight advocacy groups have released an immigration plan they call “Free to Move, Free to Stay,” a slogan that suggests no limits.
Eager to court activists, whom they consider influential with the Latino vote, the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have moved sharply left from the party’s norms. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont vows a moratorium on deportations and a move to “break up” ICE. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined him in pledging to make border crossings a civil, not criminal offense, before leaving the race this week. Both would include undocumented migrants in their plans for universal health insurance (as did the former mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, a moderate who also left the race recently).
Some Democrats fear the permissive tone will alienate voters who consider President Trump bigoted or cruel but want border control. Yet what’s notable about the progressives’ stance isn’t just the retreat on enforcement. It’s the lack of an affirmative case for immigration — an argument for how it strengthens the economy, invigorates the culture and deepens ties to the world.
Nothing propelled Mr. Trump’s rise more than his attacks on immigration, yet some progressives reject the notion that immigration needs to be defended at all. If natives don’t have to justify their existence, why should the foreign-born?
“I think the question of good versus bad misses the point,” Cristina Jiménez, the director of United We Dream, a group that supports immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, told me. “Human flow is the reality as more people get displaced by globalization and climate change and people are fleeing poverty and oppressive countries.”
Faced with such relentless attacks, progressives say they’ve been too busy defending basic rights to focus on immigration’s broader benefits. “I think we’ve done a good job at pointing out the harms of the current immigration system,” said Deepak Bhargava, a longtime migrant rights leader now teaching at the City University of New York. “The question that has not been engaged enough is the centrality of immigration to the country’s future.”
But many progressives also reject the kind of arguments that supporters of immigration once made. An obvious case for immigration is economic: It has powered the rise of Silicon Valley, brought entrepreneurs to the inner city and staffed hospitals in the reddest and bluest of states.
Yet some on the left say economic arguments commodify immigrants or denigrate the native work force. “That frame pits workers against each other,” said Mary Small, the legislative director of Indivisible, a political organizing group. She prefers solidarity-based appeals that explain how “everyone’s humanity is tied up in the way immigrants are treated.”
“If you want me to give you some top-level GDP number, that’s just not my voice,” said Lorella Praeli, a former Dreamer who is president of Community Change Action, a political organizing group that works with immigrants. “I would start with the story of self.”
More than the progressive groups they court, the Democratic presidential candidates do at least nod toward economic rationales. Ms. Warren says immigrants “grow our economy and make our communities richer.” Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who quit the race this week) both proposed special visas for immigrants willing to move to struggling areas.
Still, the candidates speak to the issue most passionately as a civil rights concern. In his eight-page plan, Mr. Sanders makes three perfunctory economic references — and nine pleas for racial justice. (Mr. Bloomberg, a notable exception, financed the nonprofit New American Economy to argue for immigration’s economic benefits.)
Few immigration narratives have inspired more sympathy than the story of the Dreamers — who are frequently described as children illegally brought to America “through no fault of their own.” But many Dreamers now reject that phrasing, for fear it implicitly faults their parents (just for seeking a better life). They have also shed their image as academic achievers to avoid elitist overtones. The logo of United We Dream once featured a diploma. Now it shows a bullhorn and clenched fist.
“We grounded the organization in a much deeper analysis of racial justice,” said Ms. Jiménez, the group’s co-founder. “We do not separate our experience as immigrants from the experiences of brown and black people in this country.”
As he tried to rein in deportations, Mr. Obama drew moral distinctions, pledging to focus on “felons not families.” Some progressives call that phrasing a false dichotomy in a world that targets minorities for mass incarceration. Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders would reduce the crimes for which migrants could be deported (excluding what Mr. Sanders calls “old or low-level” offenses).
Rather than celebrate immigrant achievement, some activists call the “good immigrant” narrative a pernicious story line that requires newcomers to prove their worth. When the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, praised Dreamers last year for becoming doctors and nurses, critics said he reinforced a harmful trope.
Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant rights advocate who served as Mr. Obama’s domestic policy adviser, argues that the left should embrace talk of good immigrants, not disparage it. “Talking about the contribution of immigrants is a way to win the hearts and minds of people we’re trying to reach,” she said.
Even the classic argument that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” now causes some people on the left unease. This framing seeks to normalize contemporary immigration by conjuring its precedents and subtly predicts its success — if the Irish and Italians made it, it suggests, so will the Mexicans and Hondurans.
But Ms. Jiménez rejects the triumphal narrative, arguing that immigrants, who are mostly people of color, have more in common with the oppressed people that story omits. “We’re also a nation of native people who were victims of genocide and African-American people who were brought here in slavery,” she said. “There’s something about the system that’s going after us for the color of our skin.”
Immigration poses a moral dilemma: There are more potential migrants than the country can accept. To the extent that they’re fleeing poverty and violence, it’s unfair to keep them out. But with nearly two billion people living on less than $3.20 a day, it’s impossible to let them all in. Hence the need to set limits and enforce them humanely.
That at least was the Democrats’ previous position. “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented and unchecked,” argued the 2008 Democratic platform, in what sounds like an artifact of a long-ago age. “We need to secure our borders.”
Today, many progressives offer only a hazy sense of how to grapple with limits. Indivisible is among the groups that favors a moratorium on deportations. Is that the same thing as open borders? “Hmm, that’s an interesting question,” said Ezra Levin, the group’s co-founder, before saying the answer is no.
Are deportations ever justified? “Folks are still trying to figure out where they’re at,” said Ms. Small.
Charles Kamasaki of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza) warns that equivocation is a mistake. “We can’t make progress without acknowledging the legitimacy of basic immigrant enforcement, and that means some people who come here unlawfully will have to be returned,” he said.
In his recent book, “Immigration Reform,” Mr. Kamasaki, who has worked for migrant rights for nearly 40 years, advises other progressives to moderate their tone — to seek bipartisan compromise, avoid assuming all opponents are racist, and question whether “unfettered immigration is necessarily in their community’s interest.” (UnidosUS itself has subtly broadened its image, dropping “La Raza,” sometimes translated as “the race,” for a name that evokes national unity.)
However beneficial immigration may be, it can complicate other progressive goals, like expanding the safety net. The more poor immigrants the United States admits, the more expensive it is to provide free college or health care.
Yet few progressives see a need to consider trade-offs. “If your frame is that ‘there’s not enough resources,’ I’m just rejecting the question altogether,” said Ms. Praeli, the president of Community Change Action. “Our movement is grounded in abundance rather than scarcity.”
On the contrary, many progressives are pushing for safety net expansions that include the undocumented. Mr. Sanders was once an immigration skeptic who called open borders “a right-wing proposal” to undermine wages. Now hailed by some Latino supporters as “Tio Bernie,” he would include all immigrants, “regardless of immigration status,” not only in his plan for free health care but also free college, expanded school meals and other safety net programs.
Rather than grapple with limits, progressives seek to manage the numbers by addressing “root causes” — like “bad trade deals” (Mr. Sanders), “climate change” (Ms. Warren), or funding Central American wars (the Migrant Justice Platform).
The focus on root causes helps shift the moral frame — if America causes migration (which it often does), it’s more obligated to take migrants in. It also suggests a solution: If the United States helps poor countries prosper, migration may subside. All the Democratic candidates would increase development aid.
Reducing poverty is surely a good thing, but development is unlikely to slow migration, at least in the short run (though reductions in Central American violence would help). On the contrary, as the scholars Michael A. Clemens and Hannah M. Postel have shown, as incomes in poor countries rise, migration grows, because more people can afford to leave. Only after countries reach middle-income status do the numbers subside. It’s doable — Mexico did it — but it takes decades.
Perhaps the most discomfiting issue for progressives to face is the role of migration in Mr. Trump’s rise. If progressives deplore Trumpism, and immigration fueled it, should the left moderate its immigration demands?
Where fundamental justice is at stake, the movement is right not to bend. But not every immigration issue is a matter of high principle. Legalizing Dreamers is an issue with deep moral stakes. The diversity lottery — which gives 50,000 visas a year to people from underrepresented countries, regardless of family ties or special skills — is not. (Mr. Biden vows to retain it.)
Progressives say they are winning. Mr. Trump tried to make the 2018 elections a referendum on immigration, and Democrats captured the House. Surveys show support for immigration growing. Some progressives see parallels to California, where an immigration backlash in the 1990s incensed Latinos and turned the state blue.
“I don’t think the cruel nativism of Trump has won the day,” said Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a group that supports legalization. “Just the opposite — it’s forced a choice and people are choosing.”
Perhaps. But the more immigration becomes part of the culture wars, the more its supporters have to lose. Immigration propelled Britain from the European Union and left Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany a lame duck. Immigration’s value can’t be assumed. It has to be defended.
I once asked a leading scholar of immigration what benefits it had brought America, beyond good food and affordable child care.
“Don’t underestimate the value of good food and child care,” he replied.
It was partly a quip — an acknowledgment that supporters of immigration hadn’t sufficiently explained its benefits and that some of those benefits privilege elites. But it was also the start of a serious argument: immigrants make everyday life better in concrete, measurable ways. Self-interest has always been part of what makes immigration in America work. Ellis Island has its place in national lore not only because it welcomed the huddled masses but also because those migrants and their descendants helped raise great cities, defeat Hitler and usher in the American century. Has any country grown richer, more powerful, or more culturally vibrant from welcoming immigrants?
By all means, Democrats should insist that immigrants get justice. But they should also spell out the many ways — prosaic and profound — the country needs them.