For most of the past few decades, the Democratic Party had a pretty clear stance on immigration. It favored a mix of enforcement (like border security and the deportation of undocumented immigrants who committed serious crimes) and new pro-immigrant laws (like an increase in legal immigration and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people).
In recent years, however, a growing number of immigration advocates and progressive Democrats have become dissatisfied with this combination. They have pointed out that Democrats’ support for tighter border security has not led to the bipartisan compromise that it was supposed to: Republicans continue to block bills that offer a pathway to citizenship.
In response, these progressives and activists have pushed the party to change. Bill Clinton ran for re-election on a platform that said, “We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it.” Barack Obama once said, “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked.” President Biden has instead emphasized the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
After taking office, Biden began putting this idea into action. He announced a 100-day halt on deportations (which a judge has blocked). He allowed more migrants — especially children — to enter the country, rather than being detained. And Central American migrants, sensing that the U.S. has become more welcoming, are streaming north in the largest numbers in two decades.
Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute, who ran the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s, told me. Republicans have pounced, accusing Democrats of favoring an “open border.”
Some Democrats are unhappy, too. Biden’s policy “incentivizes droves of people to come, and the only way to slow it down is by changing policy at our doorstep,” Representative Vicente Gonzalez of Texas told The Washington Post. Henry Cuellar, another House Democrat from Texas, said the administration was sending “a terrible message.”
It all stems from the fact that the Democratic Party no longer has a clear policy on immigration.
Trump obscured the debate
While Donald Trump was president, he smoothed over the Democrats’ internal tensions because they could unite in opposition to him. Trump used racist language; Democrats abhorred it. Trump separated families and locked children in cages; Democrats promised to end those policies. Trump said he would build a border wall, paid for by Mexico; Democrats mocked his failure.
With Trump out of office, however, the party faces some hard, unresolved questions, including:
Do Democrats still favor the deportation of anyone? Some activists criticized Obama as the “deporter in chief.” But he focused deportations on only two groups: recent arrivals and immigrants who committed serious crimes.
If Democrats prefer a more lenient policy than Obama’s, it isn’t clear whether they support the deportation of anybody — or whether they instead believe that the humane solution is to allow everybody who manages to enter the U.S., legally or illegally, to remain. The party’s 2020 platform doesn’t mention any conditions in which deportation is acceptable. Biden’s attempt to halt deportations for 100 days highlights the party’s new attitude.
detaining children is fraught, and many Democrats consider the jailing of any immigrants akin to Trumpism.
A third option is to admit migrants and order them to appear at a future legal hearing (as is happening with many children and families). The adults must often wear ankle bracelets. Still, the process can take years and raises other thorny issues. Many migrants are not good asylum candidates; they are coming to find work or to be near relatives, neither of which necessarily qualifies them for legal entry.
Often, the administration will still be left to decide whom it is willing to deport.