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The Missed Opportunity of Democrats’ Renewed Engagement on Immigration Politics

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Washington, DC — Later this week, Senate Democrats will hold another vote on the formerly bipartisan border bill that failed earlier in the year after Trump and allies scuttled its prospects. Republicans clearly preferred immigration and the border as a political issue to run on, rather than an issue to be resolved. The renewed Senate effort, as seemingly all observers agree, is not designed for potential legislative passage but rather to equip Democrats for the election year and the related and relentless Republican focus on immigration and the border. Through this lens, America’s Voice thinks there are some missed opportunities associated with Democrats’ efforts. 

  • Necessary to lean in: Instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, it is necessary politics for Democrats to lean in and call out Republican gamesmanship and the GOP’s continued preference for symbolic gestures geared towards triggering grievances and nationalist emotions rather than governing or resolving complex policy issues.
  • Bad to solely focus on an enforcement-heavy border bill: Yet, by solely focusing on reupping the Senate border package, which was negotiated with border hawk Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Kirsten Sinema (I-AZ) and always tilted heavily in the direction of Republicans’ hardline policy preferences, Democrats are missing the opportunity to outline a broader vision that is much more in line with where American voters are. That approach couples an orderly border with strong support for citizenship and relief for long-settled immigrant populations like Dreamers, TPS holders, and spouses in mixed-status families and incentivizes legal immigration and safe, orderly pathways, rather than closing those avenues off. 
  • Missed opportunity to connect with the American public’s support for “both/and” approach: This broader “both/and” approach is strongly backed by the American people, including key 2024 Democratic constituencies like Latino voters, younger voters, women and people of color, instead of enforcement-only alternatives (see here for a roundup of American public opinion on immigration and here for findings from a recent Unidos.US poll of Latino voters). 

According to Vanessa Cárdenas, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

“Yes, our immigration system is broken and yes, we need to bring order to the border. But the American public wants a broader solution that is neither a blanket border shutdown nor the mass deportation fantasies of the far right. The American people do not want a band-aid approach; they remain overwhelmingly in favor of policies that both address an orderly border and also legalize and offer support for long-established and hard-working immigrants, such as Dreamers, TPS holders, and mixed-status family members and the spouses of U.S. citizens. 

As Trump and Republicans openly tout white nationalist talking points and promise to deploy the military in American communities to conduct a mass purge of millions of immigrants, Democrats should be leaning into this extremism through sharp contrasts that meet the American public’s concerns and push for a broader and more popular vision that addresses their interests head-on.”

Several leading lawmakers are making similar points in assessing the renewed Senate push and legislation. For example, Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), said, “It’s…not lost on me that the last time we were here, a lot of people mentioned that this was a price they were willing to pay for the sake of Ukraine funding. That’s no longer the case. The foreign aid package has been approved. So this should not be the Democratic starting point for security or immigration reform. I agree, we need to address the border…I wish we did it in a more thoughtful approach. But to think we could have something pass, that not one Dreamer is helped, no relief for a single farmworker or any essential worker, no long-term resident of the United States who’s been here working hard and paying taxes, it’s unconscionable.” 

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