Democrats' Support for Immigrants Grows More Forceful
(Bloomberg View) -- The Democratic Party ought to be on the defensive. It has been little more than 14 months since Donald Trump’s election victory. Throughout his first year in office Trump has pounded away, with vehemence if not coherence, on his trademark issue – immigration. This week, his administration produced an official document ostensibly linking immigrants to terrorism, the effort dramatized by labeling international terrorists extradited to the U.S. as “immigrants.”
Yet the more Trump hammers, the more Democrats flaunt their love of Muslims, Haitians, Salvadorans -- anyone who came to the country from elsewhere.
Democrats in Congress are weighing letting the government shut down rather than permit Trump to abandon Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects from deportation around 700,000 “Dreamer” immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children.
At the same time, Democrats remain united in opposition to the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. They likewise oppose proposals made by Trump and Republican Senator Tom Cotton, among others, to cut legal immigration. Meanwhile, Democratic politicians from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles have designated their cities sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants threatened by federal agents.
Which raises a question: Are immigrants really that popular? And didn’t Trump win in 2016 after running the most anti-immigrant campaign in American memory?
Overall, the pro-immigration argument has been gaining ground for more than two decades. Trump’s success didn’t change that. In polls taken each June over the past three years, Gallup found that the desire to decrease immigration is consistently a minority position, going from 34 percent of Americans in 2015 to 35 percent in 2017. In between, it peaked during the presidential campaign at 38 percent. Not coincidentally, those numbers are roughly similar to the percentage of Americans who approve of Trump’s job performance. In other words, the nation’s anti-immigrant cohort largely overlaps with Trump’s base.
That base is highly motivated to vote on the issue. But it’s nowhere near commanding a majority. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in August, Americans by more than 2 to 1 said immigration strengthens the U.S. rather than weakens it. A September Monmouth University poll found 76 percent saying their “personal way of life” is not threatened by illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Trump’s wall is also consistently unpopular. Quinnipiac this month showed Americans opposing it by 63 percent to 34 percent.
“President Trump has moved the right-wing position on this issue so far to the right with his rhetoric AND his actions that there is a new center, which is strongly anti-racist, strongly pro-DACA, and reasonable on reform,” said Democratic consultant Anita Dunn in an email.
Yet Trump changes his immigration positions so frequently that it’s a wonder the public can keep track. His bursts of aggression and erratic pronouncements are likely more memorable. A CNN poll in September found a combined 61 percent of Americans “not very confident” or “not confident at all” that Trump and Congress will enact laws to improve the way the country handles immigration and border security.
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin believes that public opinion on policies, immigration included, is simply overwhelmed by the chaos and malignity of the Trump presidency.
“You can’t just look at a strict immigration piece and try to answer the question” of how it plays politically, Maslin emailed. “This is way beyond that. The Trump brand of noxious politics is drowning out all the pieces that got him there.”
What got Trump to the White House was white voters. Yet even white voters can find Trump exhausting. “In most of the red states that have Senate races,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, “immigration is not a priority issue for voters, and there is a feeling that Trump and other Republicans emphasize it too much at the expense of other things.”
It’s possible that the majority of Americans has grown so comfortable with immigration that the Democrats represent a stable consensus. But high levels of immigration, such as the U.S. has experienced over recent decades, have historically produced unsettling effects. Moreover, it’s hard to square the election results of 2016, in which 63 million Americans voted for a candidate with a crudely anti-immigrant message, with an expansive national embrace of immigration.
Yet even in the midst of the 2016 campaign, Americans overwhelmingly opposed Trump’s signature border wall. The most unpopular first year of a presidency in the history of polling hasn’t brought many people around. If anything, it appears Trump has grown so toxic that he risks increasing support for a position merely by holding its opposite.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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