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Democrats Are Embracing Border Policies They Repeatedly Condemned Under Trump

The party is twisting itself into a pretzel to defend the most restrictive immigration policies in decades.

Migrants and asylum-seekers attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border despite heightened security measures, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on February 1, 2024.

In 2019, I stood outside a for-profit child migrant jail in the city of Homestead, Florida. I was watching then-presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris speak out against the facility, initially opened under the Obama administration and reopened under former President Donald Trump. “It’s a human rights abuse being committed by the United States government,” Harris said at the time, flanked by fellow Democratic candidates Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The parade of candidates making the obligatory campaign stop at this immigrant jail that caused so much outrage across the country included every Democratic presidential candidate competing in the 2020 cycle, excluding Joe Biden — who probably wanted to avoid uncomfortable questions regarding the facility’s origins while he was the sitting vice president. I was the political director of a statewide immigrant rights organization at the time, and part of my job was to help coordinate visits to this facility by different campaigns and to generate media coverage of the mistreatment of minors we knew was happening within its walls.

The facility was closed not too long after that, and it was celebrated by politicians and talking heads associated with the Democratic Party as a resounding victory against Trump-era anti-immigrant policies.

Five years later, Democratic politicians sound increasingly like Trump when debating immigration. After a military aid package to Ukraine faced Republican obstruction, the Biden administration decided to play four-dimensional chess and proposed combining it into so-called border security. Since Republicans have tied so much of their political identity to curtailing immigration into the country, this political play would be the sweetener that would dislodge military aid from legislative gridlock.

While lobbying Congress for passage of the bill, President Biden said it would give him the authority to “shut down the border on day one.” The proposal would have gutted the asylum system by creating a rushed and tougher process for asylum seekers, requiring them to adjudicate their claims within six months and meet higher requirements for approval. It sought to revive failed Trump-era policies like Title 42 and the construction of the border wall. If the border sees more than 8,500 entries per day, it would automatically be shut down under the bill, and the same would happen if there are 5,000 entries per day, on a rolling seven-day basis. It would have provided $3.2 billion to expand immigrant detention, including private prisons.

However, the deal collapsed after weeks of secret negotiations between the White House and a small group of senators that included Republican James Lankford, Democrat Chris Murphy and Independent Kyrsten Sinema. The proposal died before it could even get a vote in either chamber of Congress. Its failure preserved our asylum system and the international right to seek refuge, as the proposal would have enacted the most restrictive set of immigration policies in decades.

In past immigration negotiations, such as the Dream and Promise Act or the Farmworker Authorization Act, border enforcement and punitive measures were always included with the counterweight of pathways to citizenship, but that approach was abandoned by Democrats in this latest immigration package. This bill did not provide a path to legalization to undocumented people who have built their lives in the U.S., not even for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or Dreamers, a group always prioritized in immigration negotiations.

The last major federal immigration overhaul was nearly 40 years ago, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed through Congress. It included some anti-immigrant policies but also gave status to most undocumented people who had arrived in this country before January 1, 1982. Almost 40 years later, millions of undocumented people live under never-ending fear of deportation, and we are as far as we have ever been from passing humane immigration reform.

Biden claimed during the 2020 election cycle that he would undo the aggressive policies of the Trump administration and usher in a more humane approach. In his first days in office, Biden stopped construction of the border wall. He ended the Trump-era travel bans. He created the Family Reunification Task Force to find and reunify those families separated under the Trump administration. He reinstated DACA, shielding Dreamers from deportation. Biden has granted Temporary Protected Status to benefit people from various countries facing political and environmental strife.

All that work is being squandered by Democrats panicking over the loss of support among voters who disapprove of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and the cost-of-living crisis still gripping large parts of the country. As Democrats bleed young, progressive, and Arab voters, it’s clear that party strategists have made a conscious decision to try and replace them with suburban voters who lean conservative or independent. As now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in 2016, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

The saddest part is that all of this right-wing backlash is driven largely by the media and bad-faith political actors. Immigrants are not just good for the country; they are essential to keeping the economy afloat and growing. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. economy is expected to grow by about $7 trillion and federal revenues by about $1 trillion due to the surge in immigration. Undocumented immigrants, like my parents for 18 years, pay billions in taxes and help keep Social Security solvent while receiving no benefit in return — a grave injustice.

There’s a huge worker shortage in this country, and sectors of the U.S. economy like agriculture and construction would collapse without migrant workers. Farmworker communities in Florida are becoming ghost towns, and fall festivals were canceled last year after the passage of a state-level anti-immigrant bill that’s driving people to pack their bags and move. It’s all happening because politicians in charge lack the seriousness to propose real solutions and instead attempt to deflect from their inability to do their jobs by turning people against other people. Meanwhile, we have places like Pittsburgh, where Mayor Ed Gainey is begging red state governors to send migrant buses his way to shore up the city’s labor force and increase diversity.

What we should be doing instead of trying to cocoon ourselves within our borders is creating an orderly and humane immigration system. Instead of looking the other way at corporate actors who employ undocumented workers without any labor standards, oversight, or protections from wage theft, let’s bring those workers out of the shadows and integrate them into the formal economy. In the absence of action by Congress, the Biden administration should use its existing executive authority to expedite work permits for people who are coming here to earn a living, adequately resource and staff agencies to reduce immigration backlogs, and resource municipalities so that they can welcome migrants.

What we got instead is a shortsighted bill that shifts the Overton window on immigration further to the right and funds more wars that are increasingly unpopular with the U.S. electorate. It’s perverse that the U.S. continues to destabilize whole regions of the world, particularly in the Middle East, creating more refugees, and then when those people seek refuge in the U.S., turns them away.

You would be hard-pressed to see much coverage of actual migrants in corporate media while discussing this legislative boondoggle. When there is coverage, it’s often embarrassingly wrong, like the controversy caused by a Times Square altercation between migrants and the New York City Police Department due to the now-debunked claim that the officers were initially assaulted. Body-worn camera footage has now revealed that it was the police who instigated and attacked the migrants. When outlets are not pushing sensationalist coverage of migrants, they are focusing on horse-race electoral analysis of what all of this means for the 2024 election.

The Democratic Party is twisting itself into a pretzel to try and defend an awful border bill containing the most restrictive immigration policies in decades with zero pathways to citizenship, after many of its member spent years telling the public under Trump that these same policies must be opposed (or we risk fascism). Rev. Al Sharpton sounded like a Fox News host when saying there was an “invasion of immigrants” on his MSNBC show while interviewing Senator Murphy. Democrats are claiming to be the party of “border security” now that Republicans refused to support their proposal, saying it’s not restrictive enough.

In New York City, often associated with progressive politics, you now have Mayor Eric Adams calling to rescind sanctuary laws as he tries to deflect attention from his failed administration by scapegoating immigrants. Tom Suozzi returned to Congress by winning a special election in Long Island while saying he was comfortably describing the situation at the border as an “invasion,” rhetoric employed by white supremacist shooters like the one who murdered 23 people and injured 22 others in El Paso, Texas. His victory had much more to do with his massive name ID in the district and his opponent’s refusal to campaign or change her party registration from Democrat to Republican, but that didn’t stop talking heads from claiming that the way forward for Democrats in 2024 is to abandon their previous positions on immigration to “get tough on the border.” Republicans are even saying that Sen. John Fetterman can now “wear whatever he wants” due to his support of House Resolution 2, an even more draconian anti-immigration bill proposed by Republicans

A recent PBS poll found that 41 percent of respondents said that the Republican Party is better at handling issues of immigration, compared to 29 percent who said the same for Democrats. Most polls show a double-digit margin favoring Republicans on the handling of immigration. Instead of taking a proactive stance on the issue and presenting a clear message to voters that is based on ethical values and presents the benefits of immigrants to our culture and economy, Democrats are attempting to outflank Republicans by taking a right-wing position.

The problem is that Republican politicians and talking heads will just lie and say they didn’t support the bill because it amounted to open borders. The right-wing echo chamber will propagate this narrative, and the corporate media will be unable or unwilling to counter it, muddling the issue in the minds of voters. It’s a risky move for Democrats to continue alienating their base of supporters while taking the position of an opposition party that hates democracy.

The failure to call for a ceasefire in Gaza as thousands of Palestinians are massacred with U.S. support and the broadening of the violence into a regional conflict is now demonstrating that the adage “the war always comes home” is true. The military-industrial complex, which was set to benefit from $35 billion in defense contracts in this bill, wants this war funding approved. The Biden administration was willing to support, and in some cases expand, Trump-era immigration policy to coerce Republicans. It’s wrong, and this cynical political triangulation harms real people.

I was in Eagle Pass, Texas, as both Biden and Trump held dueling press conferences regarding the border. Shelby Park, compromised of 46-acres of public land in the border city, was closed and covered along a few miles with barbed wire and shipping containers that were supposed to act as a makeshift border wall. The Mexican side sported a beautiful walkway covered in trees. The U.S. side was a depressing militarized mess.

The environmental destruction was obvious. I saw the infamous buoys in the water placed by Texas that have drowned people. Residents told me that the shipping containers will essentially become destructive missiles when dislodged from sediment by flooding. There were Florida Fish and Wildlife vehicles everywhere, courtesy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who is eager to insert himself into the political theater as he seeks to run for president again in 2028. National Guard members with automatic weapons stood around for hours with clearly nothing to do — all a complete misuse and waste of public dollars.

We don’t have a border crisis in this country; we have a crisis of unserious politicians and political theater that is destroying local economies, harming the environment and dehumanizing people in need of our help.

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