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Opinion To defeat Trumpism, stop letting MAGA stunts drive the debate

President Biden shakes hands with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
5 min

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent planeloads of migrants to Massachusetts in the fall, it received an extraordinary amount of coverage. Though that stunt said nothing about how to fix our immigration system, DeSantis amplified a message nationally that painted asylum seekers as a dangerous, unmanageable threat — and himself as a disciplinarian determined to get the southern border under control.

Now, with the focus intensifying on this matter — President Biden is discussing border security with the president of Mexico this week, and senators have renewed talks on a proposal — DeSantis’s ability to hijack the debate with empty agitprop points to a larger problem for Democrats. DeSantis and other Republicans often set the frame of our national argument over immigration. Democrats badly need to seize control of it on their own terms.

Here’s one idea: Democrats should find ways to elevate the voices of lawmakers from Southwestern and border states on this issue. These are mostly dynamic, relatively young public servants who can speak from direct experience about immigration in a nuanced, compelling way. Why don’t we hear more from them when Republicans roll out their stunts?

“The pushback has to be from members of Congress that have experience with the border,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who grew up in a border community, told me, adding that Democrats “have to start engaging in that debate.”

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Democrats just won high-profile races in the region against leading MAGA Republicans who ran not just as immigration restrictionists but as virulent demagogues. Notably, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) defeated Blake Masters, the Great Restrictionist Hope of the GOP, who featured machine gun fire at the border in his ads.

Similarly, in Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto defeated a Republican who trafficked in the “great replacement theory” about immigrants displacing native-born Americans. Cortez Masto emphasized her work on immigration enforcement as state attorney general and insisted “dreamers” brought here as children deserve legal protection.

It’s beyond absurd that DeSantis — and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who is busing migrants all over the country — often dictate the terms of this debate to a greater degree than those Democrats do.

Cortez Masto points to news media treatment of recent bipartisan talks in the Senate over a proposal to legalize 2 million dreamers and rationalize the asylum process, which died last month. It was an infinitely more serious contribution to the debate than those DeSantis-Abbott stunts, but it got far less coverage.

“That’s part of the problem,” Cortez Masto told me, noting that the media are “focused on the antics of the extreme right.” Or, as Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) put it, the DeSantis-Abbott approach “seems to get the attention of broadcast news” because of “how hateful their actions are.”

As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg points out, the four border states are represented by five Democratic senators and only two Republican ones — and by three Democratic governors. Big gains in the Southwest are one of the party’s biggest political success stories. Shouldn’t the immigration debate reflect this?

“It’s important that these voices become much louder,” Rosenberg told me. “Democrats have to stop allowing the debate to be dominated by Republicans and extremists.”

Biden’s contribution to this situation has been mixed. On the negative side, last week Biden announced plans to expand restrictions on who can apply for asylum, based on a bogus use of a covid-19 related health rule and other indefensible procedural measures.

This complicates efforts by Democrats to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans who portray asylum seeking as fundamentally destructive and terrifying. As Luján told me, “It’s important that there be a strong rebuke to what Abbott and DeSantis are both doing.”

But Biden will also allow an additional 30,000 migrants to apply for legal entry each month from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, expanding on a previous program that paroles migrants into the United States in certain exceptional circumstances. As the Cato Institute’s David Bier explains, if this succeeds, it could serve as a template for allowing more migrants to come here legally in the future.

Biden’s widening of those channels gives Democrats an opening to argue for expanded legal immigration. This case would stress that undocumented migrants helped our country through the pandemic and that more legal immigrants would offset labor shortages. The bipartisan proposal to streamline asylum processing, which senators have revived in this Congress, should be part of this argument.

The dirty secret of this debate is that Republicans like DeSantis plainly relish as much border chaos as possible. As immigration writer Alex Nowrasteh notes, in the public mind such chaos imagery perversely undermines the case for more legal immigration, which gets things exactly backward. More legal channels would reduce the incentives to migrate illegally, mitigating disorder at the border.

Republicans like DeSantis want the border perceived as an uncontrollable war zone. That’s why they hold photo ops there in buffoonish-looking military garb.

“Democrats have to prioritize fixing the immigration system,” Rep. Greg Casar (D-Tex.) told me. “Otherwise we’ll continue in this vicious cycle. The more broken the system is, the more Republicans will fill the vacuum with stunts.”

Democrats who live and breathe these issues regularly need to take charge of this debate and explain clearly to the American people that legal immigration, managed humanely and effectively, is a positive good for the country.