Nitroglycerine. That’s how one long-time political strategist recently explained the politics of immigration to me. It’s one of those issues, he said, that can just as easily explode in your face as it can blow up the other side. Right now, it looks like the Trump administration is juggling bottles of the stuff. The policy of separating those who cross the border illegally from their children is overwhelmingly unpopular among independent voters, and recent polls show a substantial number of Republicans disapprove of it. A recent Pew poll found Democrats more trusted on the issue of immigration by 14 points.
And, while President Trump and those in his inner circle believe that their hard-line policies on illegal immigration will rouse the MAGA base, the fact that most Republicans in Congress scrambled to distance themselves from the ‘zero tolerance’ policy was a clear signal for how toxic they believe the issue will be in the midterms.
Yet, even many Democrats are wary of overplaying their hand. And, it’s not just because of Trump. For years, Democrats have watched Republicans effectively cast their party as more concerned with the rights and comfort of illegal immigrants than the safety, security and economic livelihood of American citizens.
To be sure, Republican attempts to tie Democrats to supporting sanctuary cities and sheltering MS-13 gangs fell flat in the Virginia Governor’s race (and may have actually backfired among the very women it was designed to appeal to). It also failed to turn the tide in the special election in Trump-friendly PA-18.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential pitfalls for Democrats on the issue. Plenty of Democrats worry — and GOP strategist hope — that the party shifts too far left (there are already calls from some on the left to abolish ICE), giving Republicans an opportunity to recast the terms of the debate.
In a prescient piece written in the Atlantic last summer, Peter Beinert observed the fundamental challenge for Democrats on the issue of immigration. In appealing to their growing base of non-white and highly educated voters on this issue (think, DACA, H-1B visas for tech workers), they have alienated “white people skeptical of immigration.”
Trump’s, “implicit message during the campaign,” writes Beinert, “was that if the government kept out Mexicans and Muslims, white, Christian Americans would not only grow richer and safer, they would also regain the sense of community that they identified with a bygone age."
Calling out Trump as divisive or racist isn’t a winning message for the Democrats. Instead, Beinert writes, “[l]iberals must take seriously Americans’ yearning for social cohesion. To promote both mass immigration and greater economic redistribution, they must convince more native-born white Americans that immigrants will not weaken the bonds of national identity."
And, it’s not just in Trump country where issues like immigration and diversity can be complicated for Democrats.
In his most recent New York Times column titled “How Much Can Democrats Count on Suburban Liberals?” Tom Edsall digs into political science research on the issue of diversity and found that “the liberal resolve of affluent Democrats can disintegrate when racially or ethnically charged issues like neighborhood integration are at stake.”
Edsall cites an experiment conducted in the upscale and overwhelmingly Democratic suburbs of Boston. In this experiment, conducted by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos, a number of Spanish speaking ‘confederates’ were sent to ride the commuter rail with the residents of these overwhelmingly white, upper-middle-class towns. They were to speak Spanish to each other on the platform and the train ride. The goal was to simulate “the situation if immigrants had moved into their neighborhood and used the public transportation.” After two weeks, Enos surveyed the commuters on questions surrounding immigration, like whether those here illegally be allowed to stay if they have no criminal history and a job, or English-only laws. What they found: “The good liberal people catching trains in the Boston suburbs became exclusionary.” Exposure to “two young Spanish speakers for just a few minutes, or less, for just three days had driven them toward anti-immigration policies associated with their political opponents.”
If Republicans have a demographic problem, by relying too much on older, white voters, Democrats have a problem in alienating those older, white voters who turn out in bigger numbers and more reliably than younger, non-white voters.
So, how does this play out for 2018?
In many ways, it feels like we’ve been here before. Donald Trump, as president or as a candidate for president, says or does something that is immediately met with overwhelming negative reactions: his claim that the judge hearing the case about Trump University was unable to be impartial because he was "Mexican," his “both sides” remarks after Charlottesville, and of course, the grab them by the … on the Access Hollywood tape.
But, soon the furor dies down and the media attention moves elsewhere (usually to something else that Trump has said or done). Those who support the president defend him as someone who speaks his mind and isn’t bound by political correctness. Others cringe at his language, but see it as bluster without real-world consequence.
But, here’s what’s different. For the first time, the president’s language can’t be separated from his policy.
So, will this week be a tipping point for voters? Could this be, as conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt posited, “the president’s new Katrina?" Will those who, in the words of columnist Salena Zito, took him seriously, but not literally in 2016, feel any differently now that harsh rhetoric on immigration is no longer theoretical?
A CBS poll taken June 21-22, found, that while a large majority of Americans — 72 percent — disapprove of family separation (including half of Republicans), Republicans “give the president high marks (81 percent favor) for his handling of the matter, overall.” In other words, while many Republicans don’t like the family separation policy, they do think Trump is doing a good job on the issue of immigration. For example, when asked if those who enter the country illegally should be punished as an example of toughness, 73 percent of Republicans agreed with the ‘get-tough’ strategy that has been heavily promoted by Trump.
As the CBS pollsters write, “[b]ecause his [Trump’s] existing political base continues to support the president, even if they didn't like the separation policy, the poll suggests that any political fallout from the broadly unpopular policy – if it emerges - may be delayed or borne by his fellow Republicans in the fall.”
Of course, it requires Democrats to keep the focus on this issue in their campaigns and their messaging. And, at this point, it’s not clear that they are comfortable or ready to do this.
Image: Organized march in Brownsville, Texas on June 23, 2018 | Credit: Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP