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Democrats Used To Talk About 'Criminal Immigrants,' So What Changed The Party?

Feb 19, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 10:48 am

When bipartisan immigration discussions pop up, Democrats often insist it's hard to find a solution because of the GOP's immigration evolution. The days of Ronald Reagan endorsing an amnesty program and denouncing walls are long gone, replaced by President Trump's talk of "rapists" and quest for a wall.

But the reality is that Democrats have moved, too, from when the party cited the flow of drugs and "criminal immigrants" two decades ago, the same arguments for border security that Republicans use now. The facts on the ground have changed since then, but so have political forces.

The makeup of the Democratic Party has changed, and its base has adopted a fundamentally more progressive attitude on immigration in a relatively short time span, which poses a challenge for party leaders.

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In 1994, 32 percent of Democrats said immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. Today, 83 percent of Democrats feel that way, according to polling from the Pew Research Center.

During that same time frame, the percentage of Democrats who said immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and healthcare declined by about 50 percent.

The overwhelming consensus among Democrats these days is that immigrants are an asset, not a national security threat, and that immigration reform should focus on humanitarian concerns, not border enforcement.

President Trump attacks Democrats as the party of "open borders." Although Democrats decry that label, leaders have to strike a balance when they talk about "border security" as the party's base has shifted to the left.

The Clinton years

In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proudly told Congress: "After years of neglect, this administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders."

Clinton, as part of his overall law and order agenda, sought to crack down on illegal immigration.

Here's a paragraph from the 1996 Democratic Party platform:

Today's Democratic Party also believes we must remain a nation of laws.  We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years before Bill Clinton became President, Washington talked tough but failed to act. In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.

President Bill Clinton unveils his immigration initiative at the White House in 1995, stressing a commitment to fight illegal immigration. He was joined by Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Attorney General Janet Reno.
Doug Mills / ASSOCIATED PRESS

That same year, Congress passed and Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

"The '96 laws significantly increased ... the numbers of crimes for which you were deportable," said Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the Clinton administration, who now feels those laws "by and large went overboard."

But Meissner also says context is important. Despite the alarming rhetoric today, warning Americans of caravans pouring over the southern border, she says that the border in the '90s was far more porous than it is today.

"I'm the person who took to the Congress the first proposal that included fencing and technology in 1994," said Meissner, who now works at the Migration Policy Institute.

From jobs to civil rights

Throughout the '80s and '90s, key constituencies in the Democratic Party worried about a growing immigration population.

"In particular, the labor movement, was on the more restrictionist, more anti-immigrant side of the debate, out of the fear that immigrants were competing with American workers" said Cecilia Muñoz, who handled immigration policy in the Obama administration. But around the year 2000, things began to change. The NAACP saw immigration as a civil rights issue rather than as a direct threat to black workers, and the AFL-CIO reversed its positions.

For decades, labor organizations had worried that undocumented immigrants willing to work for less pay would push union wages lower. But the AFL-CIO started to see immigrant labor as a growing base of their membership.

Still, labor concerns lingered.

In 2007, when a majority of Democrats supported a bipartisan immigration bill, two progressives now mulling a 2020 presidential run did not.

"[Ohio Sen.] Sherrod Brown ... he thought, if we legalize and expanded the admission of immigrants it might affect American workers in a way that his state's workers would suffer," said Frank Sharry, a longtime pro-immigration activist who leads the immigration reform group America's Voice. "[Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders also voted against it."

Brown and Sanders' staffs now say the senators were always in favor of immigration and voted against the bill for humanitarian and labor concerns, particularly around the expansion of a guest worker program that they worried would lower wages.

But fast forward to 2013, when the Senate voted on another comprehensive immigration bill. Labor groups supported it, and not a single Democrat voted against it.

During the era in which immigration was largely perceived as a labor force issue, Democrats were far more divided. But as the leading labor critics dropped their concerns, immigration became more of a humanitarian and civil rights concern, and Democrats became more unified.

The immigrants next door

Sharry thinks the biggest change he's noticed is an overall shift in American public opinion.

"Americans over the last decade have become more profoundly and deeply pro-immigrant because they know immigrants," he said. "Quite frankly, the driving force was immigrants — who were well represented in the big cities of L.A. and New York and Houston and Chicago and Miami — moving to all parts of the country."

And in the last couple of decades, this demographic change has been magnified within the Democratic Party.

In 1995, about a quarter of Democrats were not white. Now, 43 percent are people of color. Most of that growth in racial diversity has been among Asian-Americans and Latinos, while Asia and Latin America are the two largest sources of immigrant growth in the U.S.

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But the impact of demographic change on political rhetoric is fairly recent.

The 2008 Democratic Party platform spoke about both the need to secure the country's borders and hire more Customs and Border protection agents, but by 2016, the platform only spoke about immigration enforcement in the sense that it needed to be "humane."

The nascent 2020 Democratic field is positioning itself in a similar way.

When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand served in the House of Representatives between 2007 and 2009, she wanted to expand deportations; now as she runs for president, she wants to abolish ICE.

Last month on CNN, Gillibrand said some of her previous positions on immigration were not "empathetic."

"I realized that things I had said were wrong," she said. "I was not caring about others. I was not fighting for other people's kids the same way I was fighting for my own."

There's one final explanation for the Democrats' shift, and that's the influence of immigration activists.

"You have political figures adopting the activists' agenda and the activists' language," said Muñoz, who worked in the Obama White House. "Political leaders who are listening to them are focusing only on some pieces of the issue where the activism is most vocal ... for example, immigration enforcement."

She says that means other important issues, such as reforming the legal immigration process, don't receive as much attention.

But the challenge in navigating a comprehensive debate is multi-faceted. Like nearly every political issue these days, Democrats agree the intensity around the immigration debate has ratcheted up in direct response to President Trump.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats have been mostly unified against President Trump's border wall. But on more nuanced immigration issues, it hasn't always been that simple. Some immigrant advocates called President Obama the deporter in chief for his policies. And while Republicans have moved to the right on immigration, the Democrats' base has moved left, exposing a new rift in that party. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: To understand how much the Democratic Party has shifted on immigration, check out this statistic from the Pew Research Center. In 1994, a third of Democrats said immigrants strengthen our country. Today that number is over 80 percent. Bill Clinton, as part of his overall law and order agenda, sought to crack down on illegal immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1996 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

BILL CLINTON: After years of neglect, this administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders.

KHALID: This is his 1996 State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1996 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

CLINTON: We are increasing inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. And tonight I announce I will sign an executive order to deny federal contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

(APPLAUSE)

KHALID: But around the year 2000, key constituencies within the Democratic Party began to change their tune on immigrants. The NAACP began to see immigration as a civil rights issue rather than as a jobs problem. And the AFL-CIO started to see immigrant labor as a growing base of their membership rather than only a threat to American workers. But labor's concerns lingered.

Frank Sharry, a longtime pro-immigration activist, points to 2007, when a majority of Democrats supported a bipartisan immigration bill. But two progressives now mulling a 2020 presidential run did not.

FRANK SHARRY: Sherrod Brown, he thought that this - you know, if we legalized and expanded the admission of immigrants, it might affect American workers in a way that his state's workers would suffer. Bernie Sanders also voted against it.

KHALID: Staff for both Brown and Sanders say the senators, in 2007, had specific concerns about expanding a guest worker program that could lower wages. Fast-forward to 2013, when the Senate voted on another comprehensive immigration bill. Labor groups supported it, and not a single Democrat voted against it. The way Democratic presidential candidates discuss immigration today is focused more on immigrants' rights and less on American jobs and border security. Here's New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on CNN explaining her immigration transformation. When she was in the House, she wanted to expand deportations. Now she wants to abolish ICE.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I realize that things I had said were wrong. I was not caring about others. I was not fighting for other people's kids the same way I was fighting for my own, and I was wrong to feel that way.

KHALID: There's another reason Democrats have changed if you ask Frank Sharry. He points to American public opinion.

SHARRY: Quite frankly, the driving force was immigrants, who were well-represented in the big cities of LA and New York and Houston and Chicago and Miami, were moving to all parts of the country.

KHALID: And that's changed the demographics of the Democratic Party. In the mid-'90s, about a quarter of Democrats were not white. Nowadays, 43 percent are people of color. Most of that growth has been among Asians and Latinos, which are also the largest immigrant groups.

Cecilia Munoz handled immigration policy in the Obama administration. And she says there's one other powerful factor influencing the party - immigration activists.

CECILIA MUNOZ: You have political figures adopting the activists' agenda and the activists' language.

KHALID: She says that means Democrats end up focusing on the aspects of immigration where activists are loudest.

MUNOZ: For example, immigration enforcement.

KHALID: But other important issues, like reforming the legal immigration process, don't get as much attention. Munoz also says the intensity around the immigration debate has grown since President Trump took office. With families being separated at the border and the president insisting on a wall, she says it's become more challenging for her party to engage in a conversation about immigration enforcement.

MUNOZ: It's pretty easy to talk about things that we shouldn't do. But there is not a lot of space to talk about what we should do to make this process functional to make it make sense. It's come very close to being a forbidden topic. And that, I think, is a very dangerous thing.

KHALID: Munoz says it's dangerous because voters want solutions. The Democrats can't just be the people who are not the Trump administration. They need to offer a vision of what immigration in America ought to look like.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TROPEA'S "CHILI WA MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.