While Republicans have somewhat shifted their focus in recent days — they’ve now convinced themselves that fear-mongering about the phantom of critical race theory rather than fear-mongering about immigration is their real key to winning back power — the politics of immigration remain essentially unchanged. Republicans are aggressive and confident, always sure that whatever gets their base afraid and angry is good for them, while Democrats are tentative and uncertain, always afraid of what might anger people who probably aren’t going to vote for them anyway.
This is why some immigration advocates are trying to convince Democrats that they need to “go on offense” on the immigration issue.
That’s the message of some new polling from a coalition of immigration groups surveying voters in battleground states, which finds that even though immigration policies favored by Democrats are overwhelmingly popular, President Biden’s approval on immigration is pretty poor: just 36 percent approve of his performance on the issue, while 57 percent disapprove.
And why would we expect voters to think Biden is doing a great job on this issue? Ask yourself: What has the average American heard when it comes to Biden and immigration? The administration has a blueprint for immigration policy and has even written a piece of reform legislation, but hasn’t done much to communicate them to the public; if one in a hundred people could accurately tell you what Biden wants to do, it would be a shock.
Meanwhile, the news has been filled with stories about a “crisis” at the border. So to a typical observer it looks like Biden isn’t really handling things well and doesn’t have any ideas about what to do next.
In fact, Biden is seeking a broad reversal of the Trump administration’s policies, which were all focused on restricting legal immigration so that it would be as difficult and time-consuming as possible for anyone to come to the United States. Biden would streamline the system to increase the numbers of immigrants coming through a variety of pathways, and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (especially dreamers, those brought to the United States as children) and improving conditions and administrative processes for those who arrive at the border.
On a conference call with reporters, the immigration advocates and pollsters argued that a path to citizenship is the entry point for Democrats to seize control of the debate, because it’s supported by around 70 percent of voters. “There’s no strong opposition left” to citizenship for dreamers, said Todd Schulte of FWD.us.
The problem is getting from some ideas that people broadly support to actual policy change, which can be significantly more complicated — especially if it requires legislation in a closely divided Congress where the filibuster is intact.
In the past, Congress has repeated a disheartening pattern. People in both parties say they support comprehensive immigration reform, incorporating both beefed-up border security (to make Republicans happy) and a path to citizenship for the undocumented (to make Democrats happy). Well-meaning legislators work out a bill that they believe can garner bipartisan support. Then the whole effort collapses when sufficient support from Republicans in one or both houses never materializes.
From where the GOP sits, it’s the only rational thing to do. Even if most Americans would like to see reform, within the Republican Party, there’s no reward for voting for it — instead, you’ll just get hammered from the right for selling out. It was true a decade ago, and it’s particularly true now, when the xenophobic ex-president is still the party’s leader and the most popular conservative media figure is a dog-whistling white nationalist.
The outlook for reform would get only partly better if Republicans focused on swing voters instead of their base. “The GOP will get no credit if immigration reform passes,” political scientist and pollster Gary Segura pointed out on the conference call, but Republicans will only get only part of the blame if it fails. So as far as they’re concerned, the status quo — no movement on legislation, plus the occasional “crisis” at the border they can blame on Democrats — is not a bad deal.
Nevertheless, Segura argued, the unadorned viciousness of the Trump policies has hurt them. “I do think they’ve paid a price in the suburbs. There are white female suburban voters who do not care for the politics of meanness” — and that’s an area of increasing strength for Democrats. Don’t forget that in 2018, Trump tried to make the election all about supposedly threatening “caravans” from Central America, and Democrats won a sweeping victory.
Yet that didn’t seem to change Republicans’ approach to the issue. So if there’s going to be reform legislation, advocates hope it can be included in a budget reconciliation bill, which only requires a majority in both houses and would include hundreds of other things Democrats support. “There’s finally a chance to get it done without relying on Republicans,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the advocacy group America’s Voice. “We have a path to victory that does not rely on one Republican vote.”
Despite the president’s eternal desire for bipartisanship, there’s nothing wrong with that. What matters most is getting the policy right. And if they want to stage some border photo-ops, that’s fine — as long as they don’t let Republican attacks dictate their decisions.