President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies toward immigrants, legal and undocumented, have been harsh, and have reflected the views of his base. But all this is, I think, partly — only partly — because during the Obama years the immigration rhetoric became quite loose.
It wasn’t President Obama’s fault — as Deporter-in-Chief, he deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants. But with eight years of a Democrat in the White House, progressives and immigrant advocates, in my view, became quite emboldened and gradually distorted the immigration debate.
One thing they did successfully was blur the distinction between legal and undocumented immigrants.
How often I’ve watched on TV some progressive or immigration advocate when talking about undocumented immigrants, saying things like, “American is a land of immigrants, so we should welcome all immigrants.” To which I imagined rational, native-born Americans watching at home thinking, “But we are not against legal immigrants, just uncontrolled, unauthorized immigration; don’t you get it?”
The other way progressives distorted the immigration debate was to confuse the issue on whether immigration is a right or a privilege. Does the United States have a right, like any other country, to have a say in who, how many and what kind of immigrants (low-skilled, high-skilled) to allow into the country?
Do non-criminal, hardworking, law-abiding people all over the world have a right to immigrate to this country?
In a rational, commonsense world, the respective answers to the above questions are obviously “yes” and “no.” But somehow, during the last eight years the debate shifted so much that the answers seemed to become “no” and “yes.”
I don’t have any animus toward undocumented immigrants, mainly the impoverished Mexicans and Central Americans who came across the border, escaping penury and violence. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably do the same.
It is hard to have the same feelings, though, toward the 40 percent of undocumented immigrants who came here on a plane, willfully overstayed their tourist visas, then hunkered down and waited for the next round of legalization.
And I have some animus toward our dysfunctional immigration system that punishes (by deportation) undocumented immigrants but completely lets off the hook their partners-in-law-breaking, the businesses and individuals that have availed of their cheap labor over the years.
Fact is, if E-verify had been strictly enforced all these years, Trump’s proposed wall would’ve been rendered unnecessary.
Excessive emotionalism isn’t good in any debate, much less in the immigration debate. Some emotionalism is necessary because Americans need to see that the undocumented immigration issue involves real people with families that stand to be disrupted by Trump’s draconian policies (which I don't support).
But we also need to remember that for every emotional story involving undocumented immigrants, there are equally emotional stories about legal immigrants waiting for years, jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get themselves and their spouse here from their native country.
These stories don’t often get told by the left, and the mainstream media that acts as curator and framer of many issues.
I've felt for some time that the left has gone off the deep end on the immigration issue.
I agree with Nolan McCarty, the Princeton University political scientist quoted in The New York Times on Feb. 16, who said, “Purely in terms of politics and strategy, the Democrats have played immigration badly. They have allowed their position to be associated with open borders and sanctuary cities. They have based their opposition to the immigration restrictionists in terms of identity politics rather than the economic benefits of well-managed immigration. This has caused them to be deaf to the concerns that many voters have about the effects of immigration on wages and public services. While I do not think the evidence shows immigration has these alleged harms, the Democrats have to do better than dismiss all opposition to immigration as racism."
Finally, a porous border threatens a welfare state, which is something that Bernie Sanders understood (he is for humane but controlled immigration policies).
Saritha Prabhu of Clarksville is a Tennessean columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.