Trump’s order banning immigration puts Democrats in a bind

Trump’s order banning immigration puts Democrats in a bind

Originally published by The Washington Post

President Trump’s executive order Monday temporarily banning most types of work-related immigration does more than intensify the election-year dispute over immigration policy. It presents the Democrats with difficult choices in both the short and long terms.

Trump cast his order as an attempt to help reduce high unemployment that has ensued from the covid-19 pandemic. Critics will cry foul, but he is certainly right about this. The headline unemployment rate is over 13 percent, which dramatically understates the true level because of errors in data collection and people dropping out of the labor force entirely. Youth and black unemployment rates are well above this level.

Critics may claim that Trump’s order bars visas for jobs that Americans can’t fill, but in fact, companies are not required to show there is a labor shortage before hiring a foreign worker. All they must do is sign a statement that the immigrant will not displace a U.S. citizen for 90 days after their arrival. Stories abound of companies abusing this rule. In any case, it is surely political folly to bring foreigners in to work when so many Americans are out of work.

In the short term, then, Democrats are caught between those who favor broadly expansive views of immigration — especially among immigration advocacy groups and large businesses — and the bulk of American voters. If I were the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, I would not want to have to defend importing foreigners to work in the United States right now. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll from late April found that 65 percent of Americans supported temporarily pausing immigration because of the covid-19 pandemic. This included 67 percent of independents, 61 percent of non-whites and even 49 percent of Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll from May found a similar response.

If Biden chooses to placate his voter and donor bases, he runs the risk of giving Trump an appealing issue that plays right into the typical Trump playbook. Trump has faltered a lot in recent months, but he knows how to attack someone for being weak on immigration.

Biden is also hurt if he either backs Trump or waffles. Backing Trump would cause even more bad blood with a progressive base already suspicious of him. But doing something characteristically Biden-esque — trying to split the difference between Trump’s order and the base’s wishes — could easily backfire, making him look weak exactly when he wants to look like the calm leader Trump is not. Trump’s order thus throws a monkey wrench into Biden’s campaign no matter what he does.

The long-term challenge to Democrats could be just as serious. If polls are accurate, Democrats seem poised to win control of the Senate as well as defeat Trump and hold the House. This would give them total control of the federal government, and immigration policy is sure to be one of the first issues they will have to confront. Even if they would prefer not to, one can count on Republicans and the conservative media to ramp up immigration talk once they are in the opposition. Democrats thus have momentous decisions to make regarding immigration nearly as soon as they take power.

They will again be hamstrung by whatever course they take. If they repeal Trump’s order while unemployment is high, they risk voter backlash. If they maintain it, they anger business groups looking for a return to pre-Trump business as usual, as well as pro-immigration activists. And if they try to cut a deal with pro-business Senate Republicans to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, they will likely have to make concessions that activists would not want to make as GOP members try to protect themselves from a primary challenge. Again, no choice they face is a good one, but the order will force Democrats to pick one of them.

Whatever they decide will stand against the background of their dismal record in power. Democrats have held complete control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government only three times since the 1960s: 1977 to 1980, 1993 to 1994 and 2009 to 2010. Each ended with a Republican landslide. This happened because of either a decent but weak man in the White House who was overmatched by events (Jimmy Carter) or by legislative overreaching by a party hungry to quickly enact its pet projects (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). Biden would be wise to avoid either path, but actively pursuing a moderate course on immigration would likely mean keeping some of Trump’s restrictions in place for some time. That would require Biden to irrevocably stand up to his party’s left, something he has tried to avoid at every turn.

Passions over immigration will not subside if Trump loses. People who are afraid tend to turn inward and protectionist, two trends that would heighten rather than diminish those passions. Trump’s order thus ensures that immigration will be an even more contentious issue for the foreseeable future, no matter who wins this fall.


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