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The New Politics of Immigration on Display: Democrats Stand United with the American Public to Deliver Solutions

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As the chattering classes debate the prospects for immigration bills that legalize millions, we want to point out some underappreciated dynamics: Democrats are united in favor of immigrants; the American people favor pro-immigrant policies; and the movement led by immigrants continues to get stronger. 

Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved the Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. All Democrats except one voted for both. This from a party that is regularly attacked during campaigns by Republicans who decry “amnesty.” This on behalf of an overwhelming majority of Americans. This on behalf of an immigrant-led movement that is becoming undeniable.

These dynamics point to the fact that the country is ready for a breakthrough and Democrats are intent on using their majority to deliver, with or without Republicans.

Democrats’ evolution into a confident, pro-immigrant party 

  • How it started: In 2007 Rahm Emanuel called immigration a “third rail” issue, meaning that Democratic candidates in tough races would get scorched for touching it. That same year, one-third of Senate Democrats voted against a right-wing version of immigration reform, mostly because it contained a so-called “amnesty” component. 
  • How it’s going: Yesterday’s near Democratic unanimity reflects the fact that Democrats are now confidently pro-immigrant and willing to lean into the issue even as Republicans attack them.

Nativism as a wedge issue seems to be losing its edge

  • It’s not like Republicans have not made immigration an electoral issue. The GOP ran on nativism in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. They lost each time:
  • Ed Gillespie lost to Ralph Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2017. 
  • After Trump nationalized the 2018 midterms with his caravans hysteria, Republicans got their clock cleaned. 
  • In 2019, the GOP was so desperate that, in the closing weeks, they launched anti-immigrant attacks on Democratic gubernatorial candidates John Bel Edwards in Louisiana and Andy Beshear in Kentucky, and lost both. 
  • In 2020, Trump attacked Biden on “amnesty” in paid advertising and speeches, and lost. 
  • In 2020, the GOP targeted Pennsylvania House Democratic incumbents Conor Lamb and Matt Cartwright for supporting “amnesty” (the Dream and Promise Act they just voted for again), and lost.

Democratic support for immigrants reflect public support and movement strength

  • Trump forced Americans in the middle to choose a side on immigrants, and they have. As Pew captures in this longitudinal study, following a massive 14% shift in opinion, they are now in the pro-immigrant camp:
  • For the multiracial majority that elected Joe Biden and Democrats in both chambers, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the positive role immigrants play in American society are settled questions. See our recent poll on legalization proposals with FWD.us here, and see our deep-dive polling roundup on immigration here).
  • The immigrant justice movement is led by directly-impacted immigrants, is becoming stronger, deeper and broader, and is the engine driving the shift in public attitudes and political behavior. The public has been moved by the powerful voices and fierce advocacy of the individuals and families whose lives and futures would be transformed by breakthroughs in legislation that legalize millions. 

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Over the past fifteen years, the politics of immigration have shifted rather dramatically. The movement is stronger than ever, the public is more supportive than ever, and the Democrats in Congress are more confidently pro-immigrant than ever. 

The Republican Party has actually helped to fuel this shift in underlying dynamics. The racism and xenophobia of Trump mobilized progressives and backfired with swing voters. Trump’s cruelty – from ripping kids from the arms of parents to relentlessly trying to put Dreamers on a path to deportation to dismantling the refugee and asylum systems – may have turned on white grievance voters but turned off everyone else. 

Today, and in contrast to just a few years ago, the Democrats support pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Today, and in contrast to just a few years ago, Democrats are skeptical about the prospects of bipartisan support on immigration reform. Today, and in contrast to just a few years ago,  Democrats lean in on, rather than run from, immigration in election contests. 

The road ahead? We understand, respect and support those Senate Democrats that are reaching out to Republicans in a sincere attempt to build bipartisan support. We know that 60 votes are needed if we are to legalize millions through ‘regular order.’ 

But for those of us who have strived for bipartisanship on immigration reform for decades, you can list us as highly doubtful. We’ve seen too many times how Republicans use the border as an excuse to oppose legalization. We’ve seen too many times how Republicans demand too much on enforcement tradeoffs and deliver too few votes for final passage. We’ve seen too many times how Republicans pretend to be for reform while scheming to undermine reform. 

So, yeah. We’re just not going to chase false promises of bipartisanship. We want Democrats to use every ounce of power to do big things that change lives. You know the options. Get ready to use them.