Faced with combating the Trump administration’s hardline immigration agenda in the arena of public opinion, Democrats have largely pointed to reports of horrific detention conditions, spiking in-custody deaths of undocumented immigrants, and President Donald Trump’s increasingly brazen attempts to undermine the legal immigration system, hoping to counter the White House’s border message by emphasizing that such policies and tactics don’t reflect America’s immigrant tradition.
But a new report from an influential liberal think tank, provided to The Daily Beast, posits that the party’s decision to cede the “rule of law” ground to Republicans creates “the false dichotomy of America as either a nation of immigrants or a nation of laws”—making the party and its candidates appear soft on enforcement, and potentially weakening future attempts for humanitarian-focused immigration reform.
In doing so, writes Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, supporters of humane immigration policy “have ceded powerful rhetorical ground to immigration restrictionists, who are happy to masquerade as the sole defenders of America as a nation of laws.”
Jawetz—a former immigration attorney and chief counsel on the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, differentiates “the rule of law” and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, calling the latter “an enforcement-heavy vision of social control that is generally used as a racially coded dog whistle.” For Democrats to achieve a fair and functional immigration system, they have to patch the immigration system’s fragmented legal framework, Jawetz writes—instead of “relying increasingly upon administrative discretion to save the system from itself.”
The white paper, titled “Restoring the Rule of Law Through a Fair, Humane, and Workable Immigration System” and released by the Center for American Progress on Monday, comes as Trump has renewed demands that Congress reform the immigration system, which he has derided as riddled with “major loopholes.”
“We’ve got to straighten out our immigration laws,” Trump said at a campaign rally in North Carolina last Tuesday. “You know, in a very short period of time, if the Democrats would give us a few votes, we could solve the immigration problem and it would be so great.”
But even as Trump’s own 620-page immigration reform bill remains functionally hypothetical, he has relied on the administrative discretion built into the immigration system to bypass real reform. That failure to substantially reform the immigration system, the report argues, actually undermines the rule of law—broken systems have cracks, after all, and with numerous immigration-related executive orders and proposed rule changes facing legal challenges in federal court, the president has shown himself willing to exploit them.
The report could serve as a potential manual for Democratic politicians—including the wide field of presidential candidates—who have generally couched their immigration policies in criticism of the Trump administration’s policies. With the exceptions of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the first presidential candidate to release a detailed proposal for immigration reform, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who basically has a plan for everything, nearly every White House hopeful has responded to questions with base-appealing calls for protecting DACA recipients, refocusing removal efforts on criminals and national security threats, and eliminating family detention.
In some ways, the white paper’s positions already comport with the positions of a majority of the Democratic presidential primary field. Nearly every candidate has called for an increase in refugee caps, creating a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, and increasing funding for the country’s overburdened immigration court system—all positions proposed in the report.
But some left-wing organizations have called for a more extreme solution to the immigration system’s problems—and are hoping to make their own play for the Democratic Party’s immigration platform. The Dignity2020 Campaign, launched earlier this month in the hopes of influencing Democratic candidates on immigration, has called for the immediate legalization of all undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, and end to both immigrant detention and deportation, and the reunification of all families separated by deportation, including under previous administrations.
Calls for nationwide amnesty and the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the report counters, “only fuels louder calls for maximum enforcement, which then strengthen calls for abolition, ad infinitum.” Only by building a workable and human immigration system, Jawetz writes, can Democrats break the “cycle of extremes.”