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Three Key Takeaways: Larger Immigration Politics Lessons from Tom Suozzi’s Victory in NY Special Election

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Washington, DC — The following is a statement from Vanessa Cárdenas, Executive Director of America’s Voice, reacting to Democrat Tom Suozzi’s victory in the NY-03 special election, followed by three key takeaways for what it means for immigration politics in the 2024 cycle:

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

“Here is the message from last night on immigration: lean in, call out Republican gamesmanship, and be for border security and for legalization. The special election should put to rest the breathless hysteria around the power of immigration as a Republican wedge issue. Even after Republicans spent at least $9.5 million on anti-immigrant ads in this race, voters once again demonstrated that they want common sense solutions instead of GOP extremism and political gamesmanship.

Tom Suozzi should be commended for taking on the immigration debate head-on. The ‘both/and’ strategy Suozzi adopted, imperfect as it was, offers a template for why leaning in and not avoiding the immigration discussion is essential, and how a broader focus on contrasts and solutions can work. Democrats can be on offense now that Republicans have derailed all legislative actions and should articulate a plan that couples an orderly border with strong support for citizenship and broader reforms to create a system that benefits the American people, while also drawing attention to the extremism of the Republican agenda and their rhetoric. ‘Poisoning the blood’ and promising mass roundups to purge the country of the foreign-born are policies that weigh down GOP candidates.”

Below are three key takeaways about the Suozzi victory and larger implications for 2024 immigration politics:

Takeaway 1: GOP nativism again failed at the ballot box: Even in a GOP-held battleground district where immigration has been a flashpoint issue, and despite at least $9.5 million of GOP-allied spending on anti-immigrant ads, the Democratic candidate Tom Suozzi won. Running hard on nativism is not the electoral silver bullet Republicans pretend it is – continuing the pattern we’ve noted the last several election cycles (eg: 2018, 2020, and 2022 and off-cycle races when immigration was touted as the secret sauce that would supposedly unite the American electorate behind Republicans). If there were a race where this nativist strategy should have worked, it was this one. It didn’t.

Takeaway 2: Suozzi’s “both/and” approach to immigration is essential to understand – he didn’t just run as a border hawk, but also called out GOP gamesmanship and endorsed citizenship: Suozzi defined himself on border security and directly addressed voters’ concerns about related disorder. Bluntly, as immigration advocates, we have qualms with the specifics of how Suozzi established his related bona fides – most notably his repeat of the disinformation that the borders are “open.” Yet for all the rightful criticism, it’s important to understand the rest of Suozzi’s approach and to not let the short-hand takeaway be that “Suozzi won by running as a border hawk,” full stop. In fact, Suozzi adopted a both/and approach, addressing concerns over the border but also not stopping there and instead broadening his immigration focus.   

Instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, Suozzi continued to lean into immigration and contrasted his approach with his Republican opponent and the larger GOP preference for politics instead of governing, as underscored by the recent GOP dysfunction on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, he also expanded the conversation from addressing the short-term strains faced by New York to the larger need for Congress to do its job and deliver a full overhaul of a broken immigration system and broadened the focus of what immigration solutions should look like by pairing a focus on an orderly border with full-throated support for citizenship and legal status for long-settled immigrants. One of the key distinctions between Republicans and Democrats is that Democrats favor allowing some level of legal immigration while Republicans now, almost universally, oppose all immigration, creating a sharp contrast for voters who are likely to favor legal immigration over no immigration.  

Takeaway 3: Democrats should highlight the dangers of Republicans’ bigoted conspiracy language and Trump’s mass-deportation plans: While following some of the broader Suozzi approach – leaning in and defining themselves for balanced, “both/and” solutions – other Democrats in other districts may want to also highlight Republican reliance on dangerous white nationalist conspiracies – a core part of the larger attack on MAGA extremism as well as an ongoing real-world danger to Americans. Another strategy is to highlight their opponent’s support for Donald Trump’s dangerous and potentially catastrophic plans for mass-deportations and a purge of long-settled immigrants in America. This is economically disastrous and would broadly target the foreign-born, their families, and communities in ways that are hard to defend.