As we’ve all noticed, the immigration debate changed vastly in the last five, ten, and 20 years. Once upon a time, back in 2014, Hillary Clinton could say, “We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay,” and not get booted off the stage and out of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said in 2009 that “Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple.” President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union message declared that “real (immigration) reform” means strong border security, learning English, and “going to the back of the line behind folks trying to come here legally.”
So, not too long ago, Democratic leaders talked in rational, truthful ways about immigration. But now many Democratic Party leaders and elected officials espouse open borders, uncontrolled immigration, sanctuary cities, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and dismiss any proposed immigration restriction as racist, nativist, and xenophobic. What happened? How did the immigration debate change so much, so fast?
To understand this, we’ll have to apply the journalistic 5 Ws and 1 H: who, what, when, where, why, and how, plus the always relevant “follow the money.”
A Brief Look at Those Questions
When: The immigration debate started changing gradually in the last decade, but extremely fast during the Obama years. During these years, President Obama had high deportation rates, but the rhetoric toward illegal immigrants changed drastically in their favor.
What: Starting in the Obama years, immigration advocates and their media supporters succeeded in blurring the lines between legal and illegal immigration. They constantly and purposely talked about “immigration” and “immigrants” without qualifying the terms with “legal” or “illegal.” Many Americans are deeply annoyed with this crucial lack of distinction when talking about immigration.
Further, immigration advocates succeeded in selling the ideas, through repetition, that no human being is illegal, and that all people who want to work hard and better their lives don’t just deserve, but have a right, to come to America.
Who and Why: The unseen forces that drive the debate toward increased illegal immigration are, of course, typically corporate interests that provide huge campaign and foundation donations to the ruling class. They benefit the most from uncontrolled, mass immigration because they enjoy the cheap labor that illegal immigrants provide.
A striking number of billionaires who own corporations support open borders, and it is a bipartisan list: Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and more. The people who receive campaign donations from and front for these corporate interests are the Democratic Party leaders and many establishment Republican leaders. Also, many mainstream media outlets act as mouthpieces for these interests.
Largely, the people pushing open borders—billionaires, affluent American elected officials, and media members—live in rarefied surroundings largely unexposed to the negative effects of unenforced immigration laws. Their children don’t go to the over-burdened public schools or experience the swamped social services that regular Americans face.
It is, therefore, grating to hear political and media elites talk in enlightened, beatific ways about uncontrolled mass immigration when they live in fenced-off estates away from the hoi polloi. Another “why” regarding Democrats’ newly hard-left stances on immigration is their need to cultivate new voter bases.
Where: The “where” is easy. All mainstream media outlets are blanketed with emotional stories of illegal immigrants who’ve been displaced or mistreated. Missing are stories on the long years spent and bureaucratic hurdles that legal immigrants overcome to immigrate to the United States. Missing are compassionate stories about the unemployment and depressed wages for working-class Americans (African Americans, native-born Hispanics, etc.) due to illegal immigration.
How: The “how” is the most important part of this debate. Uncontrolled mass immigration was sold to the American public, and especially Democrats, through an effective branding campaign. Starting in the last five to seven years, uncontrolled immigration was relentlessly featured on many mainstream media outlets as a compassionate choice that virtuous Americans should or at least want to support.
‘Justifying Beliefs They Want to Hold’
The branding campaign was successful in that millions of ordinary Democratic voters fell for the message. It is hard to fault them. Compassion is a powerful virtue, and people, especially bleeding-heart Democrats, don’t want to see themselves as uncompassionate, and especially don’t want their peers to think of them as uncompassionate.
For many Democratic voters, especially white Americans, supporting illegal immigration is a way of virtue-signaling and sort of a one-person atonement for historical abuses based on race. It is a way to think of oneself as a member of an enlightened, cosmopolitan, the-whole-world-is-one-family tribe.
I know because I, a legal immigrant and former Democrat, used to think that way. The problem was the cognitive dissonance. I knew instinctively that uncontrolled immigration was and is a bad idea but thought that not supporting it would go against the grain of enlightened, compassionate politics.
In talking about how people think, cognitive scientist Steven Sloman says people devote “a lot of their resources to justifying beliefs they want to hold, as opposed to forming credible beliefs based only on fact.” That applies to how Democrats think in the immigration debate.
On the subject of compassion, there is much to say. Of course, we should be compassionate toward all human beings, and, of course, we should have humane policies toward both legal immigrants and those who illegally cross our border.
Personally (and truthfully), as one who jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops, did tons of paperwork, and stood in long lines at 5 a.m. outside the American consulate in India to legally immigrate here with my husband, I don’t feel especially compassionate toward the roughly 42 percent of all illegal immigrants who fly to the United States on a tourist visa, deliberately overstay their visa, and stay in the shadows here hoping to get amnesty in the next round of legalization. But that’s another matter.
How About Start with Compassion for Your Neighbors?
The other problem with compassion is that a generalized, boundless compassion for all the people on earth is not a good idea when it translates into public policy. A better use of compassion would be to express it toward the American citizens living and suffering in economically depressed regions of the country.
Also, the Democrats who want to abolish ICE and have open borders aren’t thinking it through: Would having millions of un-vetted people coming across the border really be a good idea? And how will Democrats’ push for “Medicare for all” square with unlimited immigration?
Many liberal Democrats are concerned about and troubled by their party’s affinity for illegal immigration. I read The New York Times regularly, and in the last several years, I’ve been surprised to see that, in the comments section of many articles on immigration, some of the most liberal readers in the country have expressed deep reservations. They just can’t voice their thoughts more openly because they’d be pilloried as racist, nativist and xenophobic.
Finally, there is the issue of how the public policies on illegal immigration have been emotionalized and sensationalized. Here again, it has been done deliberately and often dishonestly to tug at the heartstrings of fair-minded Americans. It’s also important to establish that talking honestly about illegal immigration and about enforcing our immigration laws doesn’t automatically establish personal animus against individual illegal immigrants.
I am an immigrant who finds herself thinking that the Trump administration officials are increasingly the adults in the room on immigration policies. I certainly don’t agree with everything this administration says and does on the issue, but I agree even less—or hardly at all—with the Democratic Party’s current stances. Also, some of Trump’s harsher policies seem to me as deterrent in nature. Democrats need to lose election after election until they see they see the light on immigration.
The illegal immigration debate will change when enough Democrats and independents find the voice to say: Enough. We won’t fall for the manipulations of corporate interests. It is okay if you think of us as uncompassionate. But we have to return to first principles on immigration. Those are: America, although it welcomes legal immigrants, is a sovereign country that has the right to decide who and how many to allow in to suit the needs of its economy.