The Lesson Democrats Have Yet to Learn on Immigration

Trump’s opponents could learn something from Emmanuel Macron, who works to convince skeptics of immigration he will enforce borders even as he advocates for immigration.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with members of the police force during his visit to Calais, France, the epicenter of France's migrant crisis, on January 16, 2018.  (Denis Charlet / Pool / AP)

As news cycle after news cycle fills with stories about children ripped away from their parents’ embrace at the U.S. border, you could forgive many Democrats for thinking that the best way for them to beat President Trump on immigration is to just say, “We’re not that guy.”

For example, Kamala Harris, the U.S. senator from California and a rumored presidential aspirant, has drawn attention to the family-separation crisis by calling hearings on the question, and then denouncing Trump’s executive order replacing family separation with family detention as insufficient. But she has not rallied her own caucus behind an alternative blueprint for immigration; she apparently sees denouncing Trump as a sufficient strategy.

She, and other Democrats, should rethink. The vast majority of Americans oppose Trump’s policy, but that doesn’t mean that they’re willing to hand over control of the border to Democrats. The problem is that, as strange as it might seem to immigration progressives, many Americans—enough to swing elections—might regard Democrats as just as extreme as Trump. Immigration polling is notoriously tricky, as Americans’ views on those issues are muddled, and the same questions produce very different results depending on how they are framed. Still, some trends are clear. For example, while Americans are generally sympathetic to the plight of “deserving” immigrants, whether that means highly skilled immigrants, immigrants who came here as children or who have been living in the U.S., holding jobs and abiding by the law, according to a recent poll, roughly eight in 10 Americans prefer a merit-based immigration system over a family-based immigration system, as Trump says he supports. Six in 10 want increased border security. If Democrats are going to gain their trust on this issue, they not only need to differentiate themselves from Trump, they need to follow the lead of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Many Americans still remember how President Barack Obama unilaterally decided to defer the deportation of the so-called Dreamers—who had entered the United States illegally as children—after stating on numerous occasions that he had no constitutional authority to do so. If it was a calculated bet, designed to troll Republicans into looking terrible and thereby boost Democratic turnout, it backfired spectacularly. By reinforcing the notion that Democrats have no interest in enforcing immigration laws on the books and instead want to increase immigration by whatever means necessary, DACA probably did more than anything to empower nativism—a policy that looked smart by pushing Republicans to look extreme right up until they won the next Presidential election.

As Peter Beinart has pointed out in The Atlantic, Democrats have only grown more and more extreme on the issue of immigration—and more shrill. Democrats seem to have imperceptibly, but genuinely, shifted from a policy of “some restriction, some enforcement, some amnesty, some increase” to a much more expansionist policy. While most Democratic politicians still gesture in the direction of some form of enforcement and limit, in practice they seem to find it impossible to find any sort of immigration that they don’t approve of. While politicians follow, as always, the intelligentsia leads. How many progressive intellectuals don’t believe that borders are in some sense immoral? Meanwhile, the self-styled resistance, in response to Trump’s disgraceful treatment of children, is pushing forward with its “abolish ICE” campaign, a slogan so hilariously short-sighted I’m still not 100 percent convinced it’s not the RNC (or perhaps Putin) who coined it.

As Business Insider’s Josh Barro has argued, Americans think immigration is fine, but they also want their immigration system to be controlled by people who believe they have the interests of American citizens at heart when designing and implementing immigration policy—not those of foreign citizens.

And this may be why Stephen Miller’s gambit—this debate was purposefully provoked by Miller, President Trump’s notoriously anti-immigration policy adviser, with the intent of causing a big ruckus ahead of the midterm elections—might yet pay off. The majority of Americans might dislike Trump’s actions, but they might dislike even more the alternative of open borders, if that’s what they see Democrats offering.

So should Democrats just “moderate” and “triangulate”? Well, yes and no.

France’s Macron may offer them the best blueprint to follow. Macron, the former investment banker, the centrist’s centrist, clearly believes that immigration is awesome. He has also clearly read the polls that say French people hate it.

His approach hasn’t been to try to thread the needle so much as try to gain credibility for future expansions of immigration. During his presidential campaign, the biggest drag on Macron’s candidacy was his full-throated support for immigration. And yet, in office, he has swung around, promoting a bill that expedites the process of evaluating asylum seekers’ claims, to a degree that has advocates in conniptions.

Last week, the news in France and Europe was consumed by the fate of the Aquarius, a ship carrying 630 African migrants it had rescued in the central Mediterranean that was left sailing back and forth off the coast of Italy. Italy’s government, headed by a new populist coalition, refused to take in the boat—which made France the next most geographically available candidate. To the shock of many on his own side, Macron didn’t budge. (The boat eventually went to Spain.)

Theoretically Macron is not a conservative, but actual French conservatives have talked about reducing immigration levels for 25 years and have never done it while in office, while Macron wants to be seen as taking concrete steps to show that he can actually be tough on illegal and irregular immigration.

The paradox is that even as he’s doing it, Macron is singing the praises of immigration in the abstract. I don’t think it’s hypocrisy (although it can verge on the ridiculous, as when France’s spokesman criticized Trump’s border policy right after the Aquarius episode) but rather a deliberate tactic. Macron is implicitly saying: “We agree that there’s good immigration, but you won’t trust me to bring in immigrants in the right way if you can’t also trust me to keep out and kick out immigrants who break the rules, and I accept that.”

The problem is that many progressives seem to think that whenever politicians invoke “the rule of law” as a motive for enforcing borders, that is racial code. I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this. Maybe a lot of it. But the fact remains that America’s current immigration regime, in practice, functions by having the law and then not enforcing it. Populists only win elections when the elites discredit themselves in the eyes of the public, and a regime of saying one thing and doing something else is corrosive to democratic norms. It’s perfectly legitimate for voters to want their politicians to demonstrate that they care about enforcing some limits on immigration.

That is exactly the thing that many American voters believe Democrats are unwilling to do—to draw a line somewhere. Because deep down, voters suspect, they don’t want to.

And, well, many voters think that could be worse than Trump.