The ad speaks to a broader trend: These days, Democrats believe they have less to fear from the issue. By this calculus, in Trump’s hands, immigration has both lost its power as a wedge issue among white voters and has become a motivator for other constituencies increasingly aligned with Democrats, not just the GOP base.
The ad seizes on the recent announcement from immigrant advocates that they still cannot locate the families of 545 migrant children who were separated from their parents during Trump’s border crackdowns.
And after linking all that to Trump’s disgraceful family-separations legacy, it announces that as president, Biden will convene a task force to “reunite those children with their parents”:
The ad is running statewide in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Nevada, the Biden campaign says.
For immigration advocates, too many Democrats — particularly the D.C. consultant class — still remain trapped in a dated mind-set on the issue. The quote capturing that mind-set comes from Rahm Emanuel, who described immigration in 2007 as a “third rail of American politics,” and some Democrats have never really moved on from that defensive crouch.
That’s why this new ad pleasantly surprised some immigration activists.
“In my 40 years as an advocate, I’ve never seen a Democratic presidential nominee lean into the immigration issue with an ad like this, especially one that touches on the border, which Democrats usually shy away from,” Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, told me.
Of course, it’s easier to engage the issue when the topic is children separated from families. It takes the issue out of one visceral realm that Republicans constantly demagogue (border security) and vaults it into another visceral realm: cruelty toward children.
But in a way, that’s exactly the point: The naked cruelty of Trump’s immigration agenda has opened the door for Democrats to attack the president on the issue in a way that many were too squeamish (to their discredit) about in the past.
Indeed, Trump’s own campaign appears to be uncertain of how the issue now plays for him. The Wall Street Journal took a careful look at Trump’s advertising and found that immigration has fallen far down the list of topics aired in his ads relative to 2016. What’s more, while Trump still absurdly hypes his border wall, he discusses the issue far less often at rallies than last time, the Journal noted.
That’s partly due to the fact that the public is focused on other things, such as the coronavirus pandemic. But even some Republicans told the Journal that a big motivator here is that the issue doesn’t work for Trump any longer:
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we haven’t heard a whole lot about immigration since Election Day 2018,” said Alex Conant, a former senior adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “He tried to make the midterms all about immigration and it failed horribly.”
Trump made the 2018 midterm elections all about immigration and the border, even sending troops in as a prop to “protect” us from the “caravan” of desperate and destitute migrants. Democrats won the largest midterm House victory since Watergate (though Republicans took a few Senate seats from Democrats).
Indeed, one Republican who lost his Florida swing-district seat in 2018 — former representative Carlos Curbelo — told the Journal that Trump’s immigration demagoguery had hurt him in the race’s final days, noting: “His divisive rhetoric and scapegoating of certain populations definitely turned some people off.”
The issue, in Trump’s hands, may have become a motivator for the Democratic base and for the suburban and educated Whites that helped drive the 2018 victory and could help hand the White House to Biden.
To be fair, it remains to be seen how hard Democrats really will lean into this issue. As the Journal notes, immigration isn’t even in the top 25 topics in Biden’s ads (though here again, for Biden, the race is all about the novel coronavirus).
And as ProPublica’s Dara Lind reports, if Biden wins, he’ll have to grapple with issues that at least some Democrats will see much less politically clear cut, like returning asylum and refugee levels to pre-Trump levels, and doing away with various deterrents to migration.
But if Democrats do win this election decisively, they should seize the opportunity to make as sharp a break with Trumpism as possible. Among many other things, doing so would entail dropping the need to cloak everything in “tough” border security talk and being willing to shape policy around the idea that asylum seekers simply don’t pose an interior threat, that taking them in is eminently manageable.
It might also be worth looking at this in a larger context: Just as Trump’s “law and order” race-war-mongering and deliberate incitement of violence seems to be helping prompt White voters to evolve on racial justice issues, perhaps his cruel legacy on immigration is moving White voters in a much more pro-immigrant direction, as well. It’s a possibility Democrats should take seriously.
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