THE LONG GAME
Trump Didn’t Get His Border Wall. But He’s Winning The Immigration Debate.
There is no crisis on the border. And yet, we continue to legislate as if there is one.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. The Trump administration did not lose anything over the deal recently struck to keep the government open. In fact, when it comes to the tone, tenor and substance of America’s immigration debate, President Trump is winning.
For the GOP, the past month should have been politically fatal. They’d just endured a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government over demands for border wall funding that ended in diminished poll numbers and no border wall. Democrats had the upper hand in the ensuing three-week budget negotiation to find a compromise that balanced smart security with protections for select populations. Eager to avoid another shutdown and advance their own, more restrictive immigration agenda, Trump and a handful of congressional Republicans indicated an openness to trading protections for those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Instead of maintaining the upper hand and continuing to focus the debate on the value of immigration, much less people, Democrats ceded their ground.
Worried they were walking into a debate about asylum protections or legal immigration, and beholden to an ideologically-pure base that demanded “Abolish ICE” and “No Wall,” Democratic leadership instructed appropriators to focus solely on spending, taking solutions for DACA and TPS recipients off the table. The White House doubled down on demands for the wall (or fence, or barrier, or “whatever”) and ratcheted up the pressure.
Congressional appropriators negotiated line items and the immigration debate became an effort to explain dollars, barriers, and “convicted violent felons.” Hannity, Coulter, and Limbaugh may have expressed dissatisfaction with the final dollars spent. But, in reality, they should be thrilled.
That’s because the far right did not want to have a conversation about the contributions of immigrants and immigration, nor about how our economy and security depends on secure ports of entry. They didn’t want to talk about the way American culture and values benefit from immigrants and refugees. They lost that debate over the course of the shutdown and they didn’t want a redux.
Opponents of immigrants and immigration wanted a debate about political partisanship and policy details. After more than 10 years as an immigration advocate, I know one thing for certain: If we are debating the politics and policy of immigration, we are losing.
And, we lost.
Because, assuming the deal holds, the president will have secured 55 new miles in fencing and an 11 percent increase in detention beds. Sure, Trump didn’t get the $5.7 billion in border wall funds. But with the debate firmly on the enforcement-only turf, the administration is lining up efforts to reallocate dollars to further increase detention bed funding and construct additional miles of barriers. All while there is no actual crisis on the border.
How much money Trump received, and for what, doesn’t matter. He wanted the debate on his terms; and, on his terms, he had the debate.
In fact, his decision to declare a national emergency on the border—even as he signs the budget deal—is a tactic to keep the debate on his enforcement-only turf.
But proponents of immigration solutions are losing something more than the policy debate: we are losing the middle. The organization More in Common conducted an exhaustive survey of the American public in 2018. They found that two-thirds are the “Exhausted Majority”—those Americans across the political spectrum with different attitudes on a range of issues but who share certain characteristics: they dislike polarization, they’re flexible in their views, and they don’t have a major voice representing them.
Those findings dovetail with the 26 “Living Room Conversations” that the organization I run, the National Immigration Forum, held last year to understand how suburban and rural voters feel about immigration. Those conversations revealed that while the immigration debate is complicated, it’s not intractable, and Americans are looking for our leaders to build a tough but fair immigration system. If presented with a solution that makes the case immigrants are contributing to our economy, protecting American interests and, ultimately, becoming Americans themselves, they will support it.
Which brings us back to the current state of play.
Democrats and solution-oriented Republicans in Congress can win over the center by advancing legislation that protects DACA and TPS recipients, improves our legal immigration system, and addresses the undocumented.
President Trump, having secured the funding and authority to credibly (enough) make the case to his followers that the border is secure, can also appeal to the center by using his megaphone to make the case for increased legal immigration (which he seeks in the “largest numbers ever”) and legalization of the undocumented.
For most Americans in the middle, there’s no better way to move on from the wreckage of the recent immigration debate than to see something meaningful passed. Yes, seizing this opportunity requires political courage from Democrats and Republicans to move away from their political bases.
But there are millions of moderate and independent voters, turned off by the angry wings, that are looking for that kind of leadership.