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.