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MEMO: The Changed Politics of Immigration and the Way Forward

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To: Interested parties
From: Vanessa Cárdenas, America’s Voice Executive Director
Date: March 2024
The changed politics of immigration and the way forward

On the heels of a border trip by President Biden and Donald Trump and as we launch into election season in 2024, here is what you  need to know on immigration:

  • Trump’s extremism cedes the middle;
  • GOP has no rational plan to manage migration;
  • Despite the hate, support for legalization among the American public is strong;
  • Democrats can neutralize and even win over some voters on the issue if they go on the offense and redefine the debate

Immigration has been a front-and-center political issue in America since 2015 when Donald Trump descended the escalator announcing his candidacy for president, and in the process, fundamentally changing the GOP. The extreme rhetoric and radical policy proposals considered fringe at one time are now the guiding principles of the Republican Party. The collapse of the Senate’s border bill negotiated and subsequently killed by Republicans has opened them up to criticism on their handling of an issue they have made central to their electoral strategy. The victory of Tom Suozzi in New York’s Third Congressional District special election marked a failure of the GOP’s signature political strategy, while the both/and approach adopted by Suozzi provides a roadmap for Democrats moving forward. Suozzi’s election and the tanking of the Senate bill by Republicans was described as a “tectonic political shift” on immigration by pollster Fernand Amandi on a recent America’s Voice press briefing.

This memo lays out the way forward for Democrats and Americans looking for common-sense solutions on immigration. Our recommendations are based on research and election analysis and are designed to offer a counter to the conventional wisdom that often gets the immigration issue wrong.


Experts who track white nationalist extremism have noted that language once limited to neo-nazi online spaces is now being regularly espoused by Republicans on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail. This rhetoric is a threat not just to immigrant communities but to our democracy, our national security, and our economy.  

Donald Trump opened the door for the scapegoating of immigrants and he shamelessly continues to do so. His presidency is remembered for its cruelty to immigrants and also because of its failure. Nevertheless, Trump is now promising to take his anti-immigrant and nativist assault to a new level of chaos should he win a second term in office. The severity of the proposed agenda has been well documented.  He proudly and frequently invokes his plans for the “largest domestic deportation operation in American history” as he and his party have fully adopted conspiratorial white nationalist rhetoric. If he wins the 2024 election, he will also bring a team that now knows how to maneuver the levers of government, as his allies like the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing organizations are busy crafting plans to enact Trump’s extreme and unAmerican promises.

The MAGA-base is solidly with Trump on the issue, with roughly three out of five Republicans naming immigration as their top issue. However, an agenda that calls for military-enforced door-to-door massive round-up and deportation efforts that would destroy the economy is far from where the majority of the electorate is. 

Their approach certainly stirs emotions and agitates their base, but it is not enough to win contested elections as we saw in 2018, 2020, and 2022 and off-cycle races, like the 2017 Virginia Governor’s race. In every recent cycle, Americans have rejected the extremism embraced by the GOP and failed to take the bait of their nativist attacks. 


If you listen closely, the GOP has no real policy solutions to the challenges at the border other than building more walls, separating families, and deporting and removing immigrants who are essential to our economy. As many observers have been highlighting, it’s because Republicans would rather run on immigration and border chaos in their political campaigns than work to seriously address and resolve the issue.  The GOP’s flagship policy proposal — H.R. 2—  is a wish list of extreme policies that include the worst hits of the Trump years: separation of families, bans targeting people because of their background, and enforcement-only strategies that were soundly rejected by most Americans when Trump was in office. There is no evidence that a deterrence-only approach would work, nor does such an approach address our economic interests, yet it harms entire communities and undermines our reputation globally. 

As Trump continues to campaign on his anti-immigrant agenda, he has also ensconced himself as the GOP’s chief policymaker on the issue. That was evident over the past month when Republicans killed the Senate’s border bill negotiated by Republicans and stacked with Republican priorities. 

There was a time when Republicans would have gladly accepted a bill largely focused on border restrictions and enforcement. But that time is no longer. The border and our immigration dysfunction have become central to the GOP’s political messaging. 


While the salience of immigration has increased and Americans are concerned about maintaining an orderly border, the majority of the public still supports legalization. Yes, they want to see border security but they also support citizenship for Dreamers and other long-settled undocumented immigrants:

Other polls similarly find that, yes, a majority of the public has concern over the border, but still supports a broader array of policies that include legalization while recognizing immigration overall as a good thing.  Support for legalization was also evident in recent exit polls of GOP voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In both states, GOP primary voters were asked if most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should be offered a chance at legal status or deported. Among voters who supported Nikki Haley,  70% supported legalization in South Carolina while in New Hampshire, 68% did.


Americans want an orderly, safe, and humane immigration system and the results of the NY-03 special election show a way forward for President Biden and Democrats. In the NY race, Congressman-elect Tom Suozzi called out the GOP’s cynical approach to the Senate bill while forcefully laying out a vision of immigration policy that paired border security with citizenship. This approach is what we call “both/and” meaning Democrats can be for border enforcement and legalization and win.  

In the NY-03 race, Republicans spent almost 10 million dollars, almost exclusively on anti-immigrant ads in support of Mazi Pilip. Yet, Tom Suozzi did not shy away from the fight, he campaigned on the need for border security, legal pathways, and legalization. He leaned into it, called out the GOP hypocrisy, and won. 

This creates an opportunity for President Biden and Democrats to redefine the debate, not by adopting GOP policy positions but by offering a bold vision of an immigration system where we have border enforcement and legalization that benefits the American people. The President and Democrats should make it clear that the way we secure our border is to modernize and update our immigration laws. We can reduce unauthorized, disorderly migration by making legal immigration with visas a viable option for people coming and growing our economy through legalization.

And let’s be clear: there are no partners for Biden and Hill Democrats to work with on the other side of the aisle. Trump will not allow the GOP to come to the table for compromise, particularly in an election year. Biden should be unequivocal: the path to border security and economic growth is through legal immigration pathways and legal status for immigrants already here. We can and should put in place systems to fix the broken system and address the millions of undocumented immigrants living here. This is time for the President and Democrats to make an affirmative case for immigration– for smart border security and for legalization and modernization of our immigration system.

The President, his political team, Democratic elected officials, campaigns, and committees need to lean in, articulate a vision and strategy to manage migration, and reject the GOP premise and their deterrence-only approach. This moment calls for action and leadership, a steady hand, and workable solutions that are consistent with our national interests and our values as a nation. 

Republicans have moved further to the extreme, pushing violent, racist, and destructive conspiracies. That has opened up the middle for Democrats to show how this issue can be addressed with sensible policies and sound politics. Democrats can redefine the debate and go on offense to broadly neutralize and even win over some voters on Republicans’ signature 2024 issue.