Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats thoroughly outplayed Donald Trump in January’s legislative battle over funding for his border wall; he didn’t get an additional dime. So when Trump sent up his annual proposed budget asking for still more, Democrats scoffed. “This ridiculous request,” said Representative Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, “is not worth the paper it is written on.”

But Trump isn’t aiming for a budget victory; his purpose is to keep the fight going in order to make illegal immigration a wedge issue in his 2020 reelection campaign.

The Democrats’ insistence on compassion for the undocumented gives them the moral high ground in this debate. Trump’s proposed wall is not popular, and most Americans do not like his separation of immigrant children from their parents or his deportation of the many undocumented people who have worked and paid taxes here for years. And they sympathize with the students and others who fall under the Obama-era protections of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), whom Trump also threatens to deport.

But a majority of Americans—in numbers well beyond Trump’s base—also want immigration laws to be strictly enforced and the border sealed against illegal crossings. A 2018 Harvard/Harris poll reported that 70 percent of voters support more restrictive laws, with 64 percent—including 53 percent of Latinos—in favor of sending back people who cross the border without papers. And although most blamed Trump for the government shutdown, when that skirmish was over, his favorability ratings rose by three points.

Trump is betting that he can again use anxieties about immigration to stoke enough class anger to win the Midwestern battleground states that he needs for reelection. “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class,” he signaled bluntly in February’s State of the Union address. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders, while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration—reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”

To hammer home that message, Trump already has an enormous war chest and an experienced and ruthless propaganda machine that includes Fox News, the most popular cable-news channel in the country.

The GOP has been honing its skills in the politics of fear and division for decades, from Ronald Reagan’s racist “welfare queen” trope in 1980, to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which smeared Michael Dukakis by playing on racial fears involving the furlough of convicted black murderer Willie Horton, to the GOP’s fraudulent assault on the war record of John Kerry in its 2004 campaign to win a second term for Bush’s draft-dodger son.

The inflammatory ads attacking immigrants that appeared at the end of the 2018 midterm elections were a warm-up for what’s to come. TV and social media will be flooded with images of immigrants—doctored to make dozens look like thousands—throwing rocks at the Border Patrol or rushing to scale the fences, as well as police mug shots of immigrant Latino criminals. The US-bred, Salvadoran-based MS-13 gang might well become the Willie Horton of the 2020 election.

The goal will be to fix in voters’ minds not just that the Democrats are weak on crime (i.e., illegal immigration) but that they’re beholden to activists who champion “open borders.” And many will be receptive to this claim: A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that voters thought the Democrats exploited the immigration issue for political gain more than Trump, by 60 to 53 percent.

The Democrats are thus in a political bind. They need the Latino vote, so they have to defend immigrants against Trump’s inhumanity. But as they do, they risk losing credibility with voters who are not racist or xenophobic but who suspect that Democrats care more about protecting people who cross the border illegally than they do about securing it.

On the question of border security, Trump is loud and clear: Keep illegal immigrants out. As far as the 2020 campaign is concerned, whether he actually makes any progress in building his wall is irrelevant; it’s much more important as a symbol of his supposed commitment to law and order.

Many Democrats, on the other hand, are unclear where they stand. When pressed, they offer measures that could be described as “Trump Lite”—a little more money for the Border Patrol, a small fence rather than a big wall, and carefully modulated assurances that of course they favor border security. Outside the liberal enclaves, Democrats try to change the subject, as Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer did by focusing their budget fight with Trump on the government shutdown rather than immigration. “Don’t take the bait,” Pelosi warned in the closing days of last fall’s midterms, advising Democrats to talk about health care instead.

Until recently, Democrats might have counted on the issue
 going away by itself. Unauthorized border crossings fell substantially from their highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely because of a drop-off in migrants from Mexico. But the numbers from Central America—especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have risen. Some 76,000 undocumented migrants crossed the border in February, an 11-year high. Forecasts are for another 180,000 by May.

The immigration system on our southern border is collapsing. Courts are swamped with a backlog of cases estimated at 850,000. Detention centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Children are lost, women are abused, and busloads of confused migrants and refugees are dumped on the street and told to come back later for their hearings. Some show up, some don’t.

Regardless of whether the numbers rise or fall over the coming year, attempts at evasion or Trump Lite will not be an option in the face of the president’s fearmongering blitzkrieg. To meet it, Democrats need to gain clarity and credibility and go on the offensive.

First, Democratic candidates must make clear that they are committed to limiting immigration to what is legal (currently over 1 million people per year). Second, they need to counterattack. Democrats should be using the rising numbers of illegal border crossings as evidence that Trump’s hard line has failed. They need to make clear that the irrational “catch and release” policy that he rants against stems from our failure to provide the judges and other legal infrastructure needed to process claims quickly. Third, Democrats need a broader narrative to connect the dots between immigration and foreign policy. The current debate is US-centric, focused entirely on domestic policies: what to do about the undocumented once they arrive here. But there can be no enduring solution to the problem unless we also ask why they are coming from there.

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are de facto US colonies, places where oligarchs have long exploited their people in partnership with American capital. They are suffering the aftereffects of brutal civil wars stoked by Washington’s paranoia toward leftist political movements. The region has also become a major route for the shipment of drugs from South America to the United States. Attracted by the enormous profits, oligarchs have collaborated with narcotraffickers and other criminal gangs that terrorize citizens through robbery, extortion, rape, and murder.

Washington’s so-called War on Drugs reinforces the rich and powerful in these countries with money and military equipment, which is often used to suppress dissent rather than snare criminals. Thus, for example, in 2009 the Honduran military kidnapped the elected president—whose modest social programs providing food and education to the poor had enraged the upper class—and, after refueling at a US military base, shipped him out of the country. Protesters were beaten, jailed, or killed. The “compassionate” Obama administration endorsed this coup, and the “law-and-order” Trump administration continues to support the violent kleptocracy that has been in power ever since. Five years after the coup, the number of Honduran children illegally crossing into the United States jumped by more than 1,200 percent.

Progressive Democrats should demand that we stop supporting regimes that are driving immigrants to our doorstep. A policy of zero tolerance for corruption and oppression should apply to any aid, and the US national-security apparatus needs to cleanse itself of its unhealthy relationship with Central American militaries. Given that there is no conceivable military threat to the United States from the region and that none of these countries threaten their neighbors, we arguably do not need to have military bases or advisers there at all.

Conditioning foreign aid on wholesale political reforms and breaking up the cronyism between the US and Central American militaries would give democracy some political room to grow. And having helped to impoverish the people of these countries, we also need to rebuild their hopes for a better future. The newly elected president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO), argues that investing in jobs is the real answer to the drug violence and out-migration that drains these economies of their hardest-working and most ambitious people. He has outlined a long-term social- and economic-development plan, a Mexican version of the Green New Deal proposed by progressive US Democrats (it’s worth noting that Franklin Roosevelt is one of AMLO’s heroes). But Mexico cannot change the region’s direction by itself. Despite his history as a critic of US meddling, AMLO has proposed a joint US-Mexican Marshall Plan for Central America. Given the United States’ history in the region, Mexican leadership in such a project would be essential.

Trump has signaled support for this idea in principle. But, as usual, it’s a trick: He promises that the private sector would put up the money, while his own 2020 budget cuts foreign aid to Central America by 25 percent.

Foreign aid is not popular, of course. But a generous US contribution to this effort would cost a lot less than Trump’s border wall. Its domestic purpose would be clearer to the average American voter than the abstract geopolitics used to rationalize most foreign-aid programs. A new narrative on immigration would also contribute to the search for a progressive foreign policy in the post-Trump era.