At their root, these debates are about the conception of America as a country. In broad strokes, the GOP aims to protect and preserve the America it knows. The party tends to be skeptical of policies that would bring new people into the fold, arguing that some broke the law crossing the nation’s borders, and others could threaten national security. Democrats often support policies that are more sympathetic to those seeking to join the ranks of Americans. They tend to back actions that encourage people to “come out of the shadows,” and would open the U.S. up to taking more refugees.
Some of the same Republican elected officials who criticized Obama’s actions on immigration last year have lambasted his plans to take in more refugees this fall. Those elected officials aren’t acting in a vacuum: A recent Bloomberg Politics poll showed that 53 percent of Americans oppose the Obama administration’s plans to admit more Syrian refugees into the country. And 48 percent—and the vast majority of Republicans—opposed Obama’s executive action, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey.
After the president’s announcement last November, some Republicans in Congress painted the executive action as damaging to immigration-reform efforts, claiming that he had overstepped his legal authority. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz also claimed that by moving to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, Obama was being “unfair” to the country’s legal immigrants. The party’s messaging was a concern for top Republicans, who feared that anti-immigrant rhetoric would further damage their efforts to court Hispanic voters.
As The New York Times noted just before Thanksgiving last year, “congressional leaders were privately relieved that many Republicans had left Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday before Mr. Obama announced plans for his address, reducing the availability of anti-immigration conservatives for cable-television bookers seeking reactions.” And all that political hand-wringing happened months before Donald Trump would launch his bid for the presidency, bringing anti-immigrant anger to the forefront of the presidential primary season.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats like Minority Leader Harry Reid—whose home state of Nevada is roughly 28 percent Hispanic—lauded the president’s move last November. Reid said Thanksgiving that year was “particularly special,” because “many immigrant families celebrated the holiday for the first time without the threat of deportation.”
This year, anti-refugee messaging dovetails with the post-Paris “nativist hysteria” of the American public—as Peter Beinart put it earlier this week—and the nationalism that’s made a political star of Trump. It’s been more than two months since a photo of a drowned Syrian boy shocked America’s collective conscious, and more than two months since the Obama administration announced it would try to take in roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of the 2016 fiscal year.