How Are Democrats Managing to Lose on Immigration?
It's an impressive fuckup, even for us
By now, you’ve probably heard of Great Replacement Theory. It’s a very bad theory, probably about twice as dumb as my theory that Paul McCartney murdered Ani Difranco in 1993 and has been impersonating her ever since. Which makes this poll pretty troubling:
32 percent agree! So if you’re on Family Feud, and the question is “name something people import from overseas”, you should probably guess “voters” even before “cigars” or “brides for sad men”.
Before I go any further: I always take issue polls with a Gibraltar-sized grain of salt. If a pollster cold-calls someone and says “Can I waste five minutes of your time?”, the vast majority of replies will be either “go to hell” or “lick me”. Most people who stay on the line will be weirdos; the last question should probably be “Do you own some weird-ass pet, like a Gila monster or a cougar?” because I think that’s who’s providing these answers. Issue polls frequently contain strange results, like this one: Some of the people who believe the Great Replacement Theory are Democrats (22 percent of Democrats believe the poll question above, compared with 47 percent of Republicans). 11 percent of Great Replacement Theory believers get most of their news from MSNBC — who the hell are those people? Who’s sitting around thinking “Jews and immigrants are teaming up to elect a bunch of libtard soy boys — whoa, 9 o’clock, time for Maddow!”? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet they own a Gila monster.
Nonetheless, sometimes the results are stark enough that there must be a signal beneath the noise. Which is what I take from this poll:
It’s actually pretty easy to find polls suggesting that Americans have broadly positive views of immigration. The same Gallup survey I cited above finds the number of Americans who say that immigration should increase is rising quickly; it was 10 percent in 2000 and is 33 percent today. Meanwhile, “decrease” has dropped to 31 percent. Legal immigration and citizenship for “dreamers” are extremely popular, with 84 and 83 percent support, respectively. It seems like the “immigration good” party should have a clear edge over the “immigration bad” party. And yet, this is also true:
How the hell are we losing this issue? In fact, how are we not winning it big time? I think when you sift through the data, there’s actually an answer to this question, because there are two areas where the numbers are so lopsided that they must represent something real.
The first reality is that people don’t like illegal immigration. 93 percent of Americans say that controlling borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants is very, somewhat, or moderately important (43, 34, and 16 percent, respectively). 75 percent of Latinos say that increasing border security to reduce illegal crossings is very or somewhat important (42 and 33 percent). Not that that will stop white activists from claiming that border enforcement is racist; there is literally nothing that will stop white activists from calling their opponents racist or from claiming that they speak for nonwhite people despite mountains of evidence that they don’t.
People don’t really seem to mind undocumented immigrants who are already here: 81 percent support a path to citizenship and 61 percent oppose mass deportations. People worry about the border; they seem concerned about the idea of just anybody coming in. Crime and strain on social services — not jobs or culture — are the main reasons people oppose illegal immigration. You can make a strong case that people shouldn’t be worried about those things, but people’s concerns are what they are. Republican pollsters obviously get this, which is why Democrats get called “The Party of Open Borders” more than James Brown gets called “The Godfather of Soul”.
Illegal immigration is example number 44 x 10^72 of the activist wing of the party not exactly helping the cause. Most Democrats understand that we need to have a border and it needs to be enforced, but I will give you a million dollars and a lap dance If you can find any limits whatsoever on immigration in Bernie Sanders’ sprawling 2020 immigration plan. “Abolish ICE” was an unhelpful, pithy activist slogan even by the standards of unhelpful, pithy activist slogans. One reason that people don’t trust Democrats on immigration is that a very small number of us — if we’re cutting the bullshit — do support open borders. The large number of us who don’t should be clear that we don’t.
The second preference that’s clear in the data is that people know that our immigration system is broken. And it definitely is; the only real debate is over whether it’s a shit show or a clusterfuck. People who have been through our immigration system speak of it the way my grandpa used to talk about Iwo Jima; it’s a harrowing, senseless experience that makes you question man’s inhumanity to man. If you’re not the relative of a US citizen, a tech genius, or a British actor who's been hired to give a middlebrow Netflix drama the illusion of gravitas, then you basically have no shot. And, importantly, it’s way too restrictive: America is growing at the slowest rate since the 1930s and is approaching the age demographics of a Wayne Newton show.
As long as there are opportunities in America — and there are opportunities here — people will come. Which is a point I feel should be made more often: People will come whether it’s legal or not. We basically have a choice between a humane and logical system in which we have some control and lawless chaos in which the only people who benefit are human traffickers, aka the only people worse than telemarketers. Smart conservatives know this, which is why people like Douglas Holtz-Eakin push for pro-growth immigration reform. Unfortunately, smart conservatives currently have as much influence in the Republican Party as I do in the Girl Scouts of New Zealand.
Just as illegal immigration can be a tricky wedge issue for Democrats, legal immigration can be dodgy for Republicans. They know that some of their voters are Great Replacement lunatics and die-hard immigration opponents, but they also know that looking like a xenophobe turns off moderate voters. In 2013 — shortly after a failed election in which Republicans lost Hispanic voters 71-27 — 14 Senate Republicans joined 54 Democrats to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But John Boehner killed the bill in the House, and two of the bill’s authors — Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham — spent the presidential primary being flayed for their participation in the effort. Rubio and Graham lost to the most virulently anti-immigrant major-party candidate in living memory, and the rest is history. Today, Republicans pay lip service to supporting legal immigration, but any serious Republican-authored effort to update or expand our immigration system is sitting next to the Republican alternative to Obamacare in a file cabinet labeled “Shit That Doesn’t Exist”.
Which all brings me here: I think when Democrats talk about legal immigration, we win. And when we talk about illegal immigration, I think we lose. Unfortunately, we’ve spent the last decade getting dragged into arcane and often unpopular policy fights that distract from the bigger picture. There aren’t really “good” solutions to illegal immigration; there are only ways to make the best of a suboptimal situation. When we’re talking about sanctuary cities, changing deportation policies, or handling sometimes-dodgy asylum claims, we’re fighting on ground that’s favorable to Republicans. Democrats should try keep the focus on the thing that most of us really want — more and more-orderly legal immigration — which happens to be the best way to reduce illegal immigration.
In a sense, I’m arguing that Democrats should steal Ted Cruz’s “legal good, illegal bad” talking point. I don’t often — or ever — advocate plagiarizing Ted Cruz, but here we are. Democrats could steal that talking point and mean it, and force Republicans to demonstrate that they don’t. That would put us on the side of popular opinion and get us out of the business of basically being public council for people who came in through the window because the door was slammed shut. I don’t know how to speak to Great Replacement nutjobs; I fear that their faculties may have left them. But looking at the data convinces me that immigration can be a good issue for Democrats if we learn to keep our eye on the ball.