Politics / February 8, 2024

The Democrats’ Hard-Right Turn on Immigration Is a Disaster In Every Way

It’s amoral. It’s desperate. It’s politically reckless. It’s wrong no matter how you look at it.

Adam Johnson
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaks about Republicans’ abandoning the bipartisan border deal during the Senate Democrats' press conference in the US Capitol on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaks about Republicans’ abandoning the bipartisan border deal during the Senate Democrats’ press conference in the US Capitol on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

(Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

This week, Senate Democrats and the White House took a sudden—and, by their own admission, rightward—turn on immigration, angering immigrant rights activists and throwing out years of liberal rhetoric and policy perspectives they had, at least in theory, claimed to support.

The 370-page border bill that Democrats signed off on reads like a GOP wish list. Perhaps that’s because Republicans helped write the bill (though many of them promptly turned around and helped tank it after Donald Trump announced his opposition). Among its provisions: $8 billion in emergency funding for ICE, including $3 billion to increase detentions; a mechanism to “shut down” the border if a certain number of people cross; $7 billion in emergency funding for Customs and Border Protection; and a continuation of Trump’s border wall. A few progressive-sounding add-ons aside, like freeing up a limited number of new visas and hiring some more lawyers, the legislation is a complete concession to the worst aspects of Trumpism that Biden and Democrats purportedly ran against in 2020.

How do Democrats justify this lurch toward increased brutality at the border? Some appear to view it as a clever maneuver to beat the GOP at their own game. By adopting Republican framing and policy on immigration, and still getting rebuffed, this thinking goes, Democrats will show voters that Trump-driven hysteria is to blame for the supposed “crisis” at the border. It’s a confounding and amoral “gotcha” strategy, in which people seeking to move across the border in pursuit of safety, work, and a new home amount to little more than a mechanism for media narrative point-scoring.

The messaging gambit from the White House and leading Senate Democrats is equal parts vulgar, xenophobic, and too cute by half. They are, they readily proclaim, giving Republicans “what they asked for.” And then, when Republicans reject it, Democrats say those Republicans want “border chaos” and are simply pawns of Trump and Trumpism. Republicans “appointed the Republican negotiator,” Senator Chris Murphy, one of the architects of the border bill, tweeted on Tuesday. He then told reporters, “We followed [Republicans’] instructions to the letter.” Republicans “got what they wanted,” Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said on social media. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) would add, with feigned credulity, “Just gobsmacked. I’ve never seen anything like it. [Senate Republicans] literally demanded specific policy, got it, and then killed it.”

This line may have sounded clever in whatever West Wing whiteboarding session it emanated from, but the whole gambit rests on a confusing moral narrative: Do Democrats now agree with the Republican party on immigration, ideologically? Their outward messaging appears to accept the premise that this hard-right bill will “fix the border” (whatever this means), so it seems they do. Top Democratic senators are proudly boosting an endorsement of the bill by the Border Patrol union, a far-right union with a history of promoting white nationalism and avidly backing Trump. MSNBC personality Al Sharpton, much to the right-wing media’s gratification, said in an interview with Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Tuesday that “we’re looking every day at the invasion of migrants”—positively Trumpian rhetoric. This seems like quite a pivot after Democratic party messaging ran in 2020 on criticizing Trump’s border policies and rhetoric as akin to Nazism. If so, do the Democrats now owe the GOP an apology?

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Or, do Democrats not really think these far-right policies are good, but are simply “calling Republicans’ bluff” to prove some broader meta-point? And if so, isn’t it quite a gamble to risk the immigration status of millions and stoke nativist fears to get some cutesy hypocrisy gotcha over on the Republicans? If Democrats can, seemingly overnight, radically alter their position on immigration from one that at least pretended to pay lip service to the humanity of those seeking a better life in the US to nonstop tough-guy posturing about “harsh,” “strict,” “tough” “border security,” then what message does this send to other vulnerable groups?

The bill seeks to more than double ICE’s “enforcement” budget for what is already “the deadliest land route for migrants worldwide, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration. That body found that 686 migrants died or disappeared on the US-Mexico border in 2022 alone. That is part of a chilling pattern stretching over decades. According to the Arizona-based humanitarian group No More Deaths, US border authorities routinely use the borderlands as a weapon, chasing border crossers through dangerous terrain and using scatter tactics to strand them in the perilous desert, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths and disappearances since the 1990s.

The logic of deterrence has animated the bipartisan approach to immigration since Operation Gatekeeper was embraced by President Clinton in 1994. As Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee’s US-Mexico Border Program wrote for The Washington Post in 2019, Operation Gatekeeper promised “prevention through deterrence.” As Rois explained, “The Border Patrol’s public rationale was that making it harder to cross the border would mean fewer people would try to come to the United States.”

This logic still animates US policy and has been tripled down on by the Democrats’ latest framework. The solution to “fix” “the border” is to create even more violence. What will disincentive desperate, poor immigrants from seeking a better life in the United States? Presumably, 686 deaths isn’t sufficient. So maybe 3,000? 6,000? The logic of managing borders by ratcheting up human suffering as a deterrent is a nihilistic approach. But it is the only one we are permitted to have because asking deeper questions about what causes the conditions the migrants are fleeing is seen as pie-in-the-sky academic questions unfit for Serious Politicians.

A dedication to co-opting supposedly popular right-wing ideas as their own in order to take the wind out of the sails of the Republicans is a defining feature of centrist Democrats, a group from which Biden proudly hails. Whether this strategy is effective at actually winning elections is unclear, and in many ways immaterial. After 30 years of this approach—a period that has encompassed as many spectacular losses as triumphant victories for Democrats— one could reasonably surmise that its proponents aren’t primarily driven by winning elections, but rather that they genuinely have right-wing ideological commitments and use electoralism as a moral and narrative cover.

Indeed, the person who coined the term for this practice, “triangulation politics,” was former Bill Clinton aide Dick Morris. He went on to become a full-blown Republican, backed the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, and these days is a frequent contributor to Fox News. Looking back three decades later, one is left to ask: Was this really about positioning Clinton to win his 1996 reelection, or was it simply because Morris and others in the conservative Third Way coalition simply agreed with much of the Republican platform?

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The difference between doing right-wing things to win elections and doing right-wing things because Democrats simply agree with them cannot, and will not, be resolved in this piece. Ultimately, what matters is not what is in Democrats’ hearts but the material consequences of their actions. Their current embrace of what they casually refer to as the Republican plan, even if it does not pass, does tremendous damage to the cause of a more humane and liberal immigration policy and sets the stage for an even greater punitive, cruel, and violent crackdown in the years to come. Moreover, the decision to wildly contradict the party’s previous position on immigration and take a hard-right turn signals to every constituent member of the tenuous Democratic coalition that they—at any point it is deemed convenient—are entirely expendable. A myopic ethos in a party that’s constantly flabbergasted as to why it has such unenthusiastic support and low voter turnout.

Coming at the same time that the Biden team has all but written off Arab, Muslim—and, increasingly, Black—support over its lockstep support of Israel’s “plausible genocide” in Gaza, the broader message that vulnerable populations will be summarily thrown under the bus if it’s perceived to have any micro-advantage come November, is received by those on the margins of society loud and clear. (And since picking off votes among Panera Bread whites is the holiest of holies for centrist Democrats, the idea that this amoral, scattered approach could depress support among people of color, young voters, or immigrants and their loved ones is simply not factored in.)

This isn’t to say the political blowback from undocumented migrants arriving in cash-strapped cities isn’t real. Strained by manufactured austerity and zero-sum bottom-rung politics, local officials are drawn to the easy answers of more cops and cages—not just to displacement, but crime, homelessness, and a host of social problems. Cut off from resources and only provided federal support via carceral solutions, everything looks like a law enforcement problem. Tens of billions of dollars magically appear out of thin air for weapons shipments to Israel and helicopters and drones for the US-Mexico border, but can’t seem to find their way into the city coffers of Chicago, San Antonio, Seattle, and New York for social services.

Senate Democrats have entirely foreclosed on anything remotely resembling a politics of evidence-based solutions, much less baseline humanity. All that’s left is fear, grimy co-option of right-wing rhetoric and policy, and maybe a token liberal-sounding drop in the ocean of reaction to give progressive loyalists something, anything, to point to. But 95 percent of the bill is bars, batons, and bullets. And voters are, once again, given the distinct impression that nothing matters, nothing is sacred, and every vulnerable group—if the polling winds blow a certain way—is expendable.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a cohost of the podcast Citations Needed, and you can follow his work at The Column.

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