In his first 14 months in office, Donald Trump has consistently appealed to nativism and pursued an approach to immigration-law enforcement based explicitly on the premise that every undocumented immigrant should, as the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put it, “look over [their] shoulder”and “be worried” about deportation. He’s become a hero of the anti-immigration movement.
Immigrant communities are terrified, and rightly so; despite Trump’s insistence that his priority is removing immigrants who commit crimes, there have been reports across the country of people being detained by ICE in the ordinary course of their law-abiding lives—going to work, dropping their kids off at school. Even more alarmingly, it appears that ICE has been actively targeting immigrant-justice activists who dare to speak out on the issue.
But while it may be hard to see it at present, over the longer term, Trump may end up doing enormous damage to the movement to restrict immigration to the United States. Immigrant-rights advocates say that Trump’s penchant for skipping the right’s typical dog whistles and overtly racializing the issue is changing the political landscape in three important ways.
First, the backlash against Trump appears to be making the public as a whole more welcoming to immigrants. A spike in hate crimes following the launch of his campaign is often described as the “Trump Effect,” but we’ve also seen a reverse Trump Effect at play. For over 20 years, Pew has been asking Americans whether they believe that immigrants “strengthen the country with their hard work or talents” or “burden the country by taking jobs, housing [and] health care.” When Trump began his campaign in 2015, 51 percent of respondents said immigrants strengthen the country and 41 percent thought that they represented a burden. A little over two years later, Pew found that there had been a whopping 29-point swing in public opinion, with positive views of immigration now outnumbering negative ones by a 65-26 margin. (This swing is consistent with an increase in favorable opinions about Islam, according to research by YouGov and The Huffington Post.)
That shift has been driven almost entirely by Democrats and Dem-leaning independents, which may signal that the “intensity gap” on this issue is shrinking. It’s hard to overstate how consequential that would be. While polls consistently show that only a minority of Americans favor a punitive, “enforcement-only” approach to undocumented immigration, it’s a vocal, well-organized group, and its preferences have dominated Republican politics without a counterweight of similarly passionate activists on the other side of the issue. The imbalance has given anti-immigration hard-liners veto power over centrist compromises with broad public support—policies like DACA, and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a prominent DC-based immigrant-justice group, says that Trump has made immigrant rights a central issue within the broader progressive movement in a way that it has never been before. “This is the most under-reported story in America—at least in my world,” he says. “We used to think of ourselves as the ugly stepchild of the multi-issue progressive movement. It wasn’t really a priority the way that income inequality, health, education, women’s rights, or the environment were. But in the last year or two, there has been a coming together that’s historic. Groups like Planned Parenthood, Indivisible, and MoveOn have become major players in the immigration space. They’re now joining organizations like [the Center for American Progress], SEIU, and Unite Here that have been doing this work for a while now. And then at the local level, we’re seeing organizing networks that in the past may have occasionally worked on immigration issues but are now taking it on board as a top priority.” Sharry points to the large, multiracial protests against Trump’s Muslim ban that were rapidly organized at airports across the country as an early turning point on the issue.
Jackie Mahendra, a senior fellow at MoveOn.org, says that her organization is “member driven and data driven,” and its leadership has prioritized the issue in response to a significant spike in MoveOn activists’ interest and participation in immigrant-rights campaigns. “Trump’s vilification and scapegoating of both documented and undocumented immigrants has given existing progressive groups and the burgeoning resistance something to rally around,” she says. “One of the consequences of this divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the White House is that [white] progressives are working much more closely with immigrant-led organizations and coming to the defense of immigrant communities in a way that they haven’t in the past.”
This “historic coming together” has the potential to give immigrants’ rights a real and potentially enduring electoral constituency. It’s hard to overstate the importance of getting the kind of “consistently liberal” voters who make up the membership of multi-issue groups like MoveOn.org or Indivisible to make immigration a key electoral issue. After “consistently conservative voters,” these are the people who are most likely to vote or contact an elected official. In the past, groups like Latino Decisions, Asian American Decisions, and Mi Familia Vota have focused on turning out Hispanic and Asian-American voters. They’ve done good work, but they’ve been targeting demographics with historically low turnout rates. Both Latino and Asian-Americans turnout rates have increased over the past 20 years, but according to Pew, they still trail white and African American turnout by more than ten percentage points. The Latino share of the electorate increased by 60 percent between 2000 and 2016, but Latinos still cast only around 9 percent of votes in the last election.
Finally, Trump has fatally compromised a narrative that had been carefully cultivated for years by the organized anti-immigrant movement. Mainstream anti-immigrant groups have long claimed that they welcome legal immigrants and are only up in arms over undocumented immigration. (One far-right restrictionist group calls itself “Americans for Legal Immigration.”) They’ve worked to distance themselves from overtly racist white-nationalist groups. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” is a common rejoinder in debates over the issue.
That they’re motivated by racial animus rather than some abiding concern for the rule of law was always betrayed by their opposition to the printing of government forms in languages other than English and their occasional freak-outs over Cinco de Mayo or automated phone systems that give people the choice to press two for Spanish. But Trump—with advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller—has explicitly racialized the debate. He’s called for reducing legal immigration as well as targeting the undocumented. He said that he’d rather bring people into this country from Norway than from “shithole” countries in Africa or Latin America. As Frank Sharry puts it, Trump has “ripped the facade off of the anti-immigrant movement and exposed this nest of racist snakes. They’ve made it clear that they want to kick out black and brown and yellow people.” Over the long run, he thinks this may be a “game-changer.”
Cristina Jiménez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, says that this is also creating new intersectional alliances with groups like Black Lives Matter. For years, immigrant-justice advocates have tried to expose the links between immigration law and the larger issue of racial bias in our judicial system, but Jiménez says that this message “didn’t get much traction.” But now “you have this administration that is explicitly and unapologetically exposing what’s been beneath our immigration laws for years. We’re having a more honest conversation about how the immigration issue links to the larger issue of institutional racism in this country.” She says that Trump’s rhetoric is clarifying, and has forced people who may not have given much thought to the issue to pick a side. According to Jiménez, her group has worked more closely with other communities of color since Trump took office. “This work isn’t done. But at the grassroots level, we’re seeing people coming together, and this is one of the reasons why I’m hopeful about the future of this country.”
All of this bodes well for the long-term. Studies find that young people are not only more diverse than past generations themselves, but also tend to be more sensitive to issues of racial justice.
So far, elected Democrats appear to be moving in the right direction, but at a slower pace than their base—a dynamic that’s reminiscent of their hesitation to embrace marriage equality. The immigrant-rights community was furious that Senate Dems folded without securing protection for the Dreamers after briefly shutting down the government in January—one organizer told me that “they grew a pair on Friday but then somehow couldn’t find ’em on Monday morning”—but they were also encouraged by the fact that they’d made the demand in the first place. Advocates are also encouraged by new sanctuary laws and other pro-immigrant statutes being passed by Democrats in blue states and municipalities.
At least partially as a result of the backlash against Trump, congressional Democrats are now getting much more heat from their base than they had in the past for being on the wrong side of the issue. A recent primary challenge against Representative Dan Lipinski (D-IL) may prove to be a model. Lipinski, who is also anti-choice, was one of only a few Dems to vote against the Dream Act in 2010, calling it an “amnesty bill” (he eventually reversed himself on Dreamers in 2017). He also voted in favor of Trump’s border wall. But outside groups like MoveOn.org went all-in on behalf of his opponent, Marie Newman, who made immigration a central issue in the campaign. They did it in part to send a message to other Dems that they should fear a backlash from pro-immigrant voters. And despite being heir to a Chicago political dynasty and having the support of the local party machine, Lipinski only squeaked past Newman by about a 2 percent margin. Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, says that while Newman’s close loss was a disappointment, “Lipinski was forced to turn a corner on issues Marie Newman and the coalition championed, and for which he can now be held more easily accountable.”
Democrats are also seeing Republicans losing badly despite trying to mimic Trump’s demagoguery of immigrants. That’s what happened in recent gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, and in Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory over Republican Rick Saccone in the heart of Pennsylvania Trump country. The electoral incentives associated with defending immigrant communities appear to be changing before our eyes.
None of this offers real comfort to immigrant communities that are being systematically terrorized by the federal government. But, as with the emergence of new resistance groups, Democrats voting in huge numbers in special elections, and high-school kids taking on the NRA, it offers some hope for the future in what is otherwise a very dark time.