October 13, 2023

The Song Remains The Same: Election Year Immigration Politics

Presidential campaign 2024 will be heating up and immigration will no doubt be discussed  Former President Donald Trump is rattling the sabers of tough immigration policies.   Several debates of Republican candidates for President have been held.  The candidates predictably talked tough on border enforcement. Harsh words, however, will not move the nation forward in revamping the U.S. immigration laws.  They haven’t in the past and will not in the future. 

At least since after the presidency of George W. Bush, Republican politicians have consistently called for more stringent border enforcement with sparse relief for immigrants, and most definitely not a pathway to lawful status for undocumented immigrants.  The amazing political popularity of President Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to immigration looms large in the minds of Republican presidential hopefuls.  That is the case even though President Trump did not have lasting impacts on immigration policy goals, such as reducing the size of the undocumented immigration.  The measures however, did frighten, punish, and injure immigrants. 

Democrats have not been all that different.  They have been committed to tougher border enforcement and to providing some relief for immigrants.  Although tending to take a softer, more balanced approach to immigration, some Democratic presidents have embraced tough positions.  President Bill Clinton signed into law the tough Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.  President Obama set records for removals of noncitizens from the United States, earning him the moniker in some circles as the “Deporter in Chief.”  Today, Democratic leaders in the state of New York, including the Mayor of New York and Governor, demand federal action to quell the flow of immigrants into the state.  Although taking a more nuanced approach to immigration enforcement, President Biden recently announced the building of barriers along the U.S./Mexico border, which generated opposition from immigrant advocates. 

Put differently, political expediency has drawn Democrat and Republican to support heightened border enforcement measures.  Unfortunately, what is wholly absent in the political wreckage of immigration politics is any commitment to doing the challenging political work necessary to build a coalition in support of a meaningful and lasting immigration reform proposal.

Historically, anti-immigrant campaigns have enjoyed great political success.  Fueled by racial hatred running rampant at the time, the Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1800s are a shining example of how dark passions have left deep stains on the nation.  Anti-Chinese political movements in the West sparked Congress to pass a series of federal laws effectively excluding Chinese immigrants from U.S. shores.  Modern examples of the political power of anti-immigrant sentiments are plentiful.  President Trump’s infamous Muslim ban founded on anti-Muslim animus and the separation of migrant families at the border are powerful reminders.  As constitutionally dubious as they are, calls to end birthright citizenship often are made, including by Donald Trump.  Race (Mexican) and gender (women) are the targets of the efforts to end birth-right citizenship.  In the 2016 campaign, loud cheers for a border wall between the United States and Mexico could be heard at Trump speeches in which he advocated a “big, beautiful wall.”

 Sad to say political grandstanding, not serious calls for reform, carry the day.  The way to change the fundamental nature of political debate is not entirely clear.  Republicans and Democrats agree on the dire need for far-reaching immigration reform.  The path to getting there, as well as the nature of the reform, unfortunately is far from evident.  Until a path to meaningful change is found and followed, we can expect political campaigns and immigration politics that we have seen for the last twenty years.  Tough talk on immigration and little attempt to in fact address the real challenging issues.