Our national debate over the horrific treatment of migrants is becoming deeply confused. Because the most prominent progressive House members have taken the lead in spotlighting these emerging conditions — for which they deserve credit — this story is increasingly coming across in media coverage as pitting only the left of the Democratic Party against President Trump’s cruelties.
It seems clear that Democrats are allowing this to happen. But it doesn’t have to.
Instead, Democrats can mount an aggressive response to these horrifying revelations that accomplishes two things: improves oversight over them while also demonstrating that tackling these problems is a partywide concern shared by most mainstream Democrats, and that a consensus set of mainstream Democratic Party solutions to them is developing.
The new revelations are coming to light, thanks to a visit that Democratic House members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) paid to border stations on Monday.
These members reported scenes that they described as “appalling and disgusting” and indicative of a “human rights crisis.” Ocasio-Cortez and another member reported that migrants say they’ve been told to drink from toilets, while other migrants claimed to be going without showers.
Meanwhile, ProPublica reports that a Facebook group of U.S. Border Patrol agents showcased discussion of profane jokes about migrant deaths and even sexual vulgarities involving Ocasio-Cortez.
Officials at Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the overcrowded border stations — where asylum-seeking families and children are first held — adamantly deny the more lurid allegations. The agency has vowed a probe of the Facebook postings.
But concerns are mounting. Human Rights Watch just issued a report finding that Trump’s effort to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, pending processing, will put many in serious danger.
Yes, it’s true: Trump’s treatment of migrants exercising their legal right to apply for asylum is attracting the scrutiny of international human rights monitors.
Where are the Democrats?
Right now, Democrats are consumed in a searing internal debate over whether some immigration positions of some presidential candidates are pulling the party too far left. These include things such as “decriminalizing migration” by downgrading the seriousness of illegal border crossing.
Some are warning that Democrats are veering away from the strategy that enabled them to win the House by triumphing in very tough districts, including ones carried by Trump.
My view is that those positions are mostly half-baked and tangential to the serious dilemmas we face on immigration (see this Juliette Kayyem explainer on why “decriminalizing migration” is largely a distraction). But it’s reasonable to debate whether such positions put the party at risk in the general election, as Matthew Yglesias says. This is one thing primaries are for.
But the debate over the asylum crisis in particular offers an opening to unite the party around positions that simply can’t be described as extreme or politically dangerous, on an issue that is commanding intense public attention right now. Why not grab this opportunity?
What Democrats can do instead
House Democratic moderates just challenged the left on this issue, by uniting against placing strict humanitarian guardrails in $4.5 billion in funding to address the asylum crisis.
That was a bad outcome. It divided the party. But there’s a way to do better now.
That new border funding is supposed to mitigate the horrors we’re now seeing. It would increase capacity at CBP and at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is where children get sent after CBP. Backlogs at ORR are forcing longer stays for children at CBP facilities, overcrowding them (they are already overwhelmed by asylum-seeking families), so expanding capacity at both might mitigate inhumane conditions.
This is where increased Democratic oversight can come in. The House Homeland Security Committee and other committees can scrutinize the new emerging stories, but also hold hearings later this year to track the increased border spending and whether conditions are improving.
But in so doing, moderate Democrats can step up in a constructive way. Democrats such as Elissa Slotkin and Max Rose won tough races in Michigan and Staten Island, respectively, and they are both on the Homeland Security Committee. Why not give them high billing at those hearings as well?
They are swing-district Democrats. If they fear the party is getting pulled left on immigration, they can show us how they think Democrats should talk about — and propose solutions to — the asylum crisis. Democratic leaders can help facilitate this.
I guarantee that much of what they say about this issue will be broadly acceptable to most in the party, though there will obviously be lingering differences.
“There must be much more vigorous oversight hearings, but there has to be a united front among Democrats, and it has to include the more moderate members,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told me. “This has to engage and reflect the broadest possible range of Democrats in Congress.”
Indeed, Democrats — both House Democrats and 2020 candidates alike — can talk more about the party’s emerging solutions to the humanitarian crisis in particular. Plans have been introduced by House Democrats and Senate Democrats — the latter endorsed by all the senators who are running for president — as well as some of the candidates.
These plans include things such as increased funding to Northern Triangle countries; creating additional in-country options for asylum seekers to apply for refugee status from afar to disincentivize the trek to the border; big investments in judges and programs to track asylum-seeking families awaiting hearings; and so forth. These elements exist in plans from left-leaning presidential candidates (Julián Castro) and more centrist ones (Joe Biden) alike.
The entire debate doesn’t have to be all about the most controversial and left-leaning proposals. Democrats can spend more time talking about the party’s emerging solutions to the single most urgent crisis in the news right now. There’s more consensus here than you think.