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AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee 2020 Did the Democrats Step on a Second Big Land Mine? On immigration, they’ve steered the party close to an open-borders policy without any serious reckoning with how to handle the influx of arrivals. By JEFF GREENFIELD June 28, 2019 Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author. Share…
If the political universe was looking for “the moment” in Thursday night’s debate, the debate clearly delivered: You’ll be seeing Kamala Harris’ takedown of Joe Biden on every network, every website, every post on every political gadfly’s Twitter account. It was brilliantly crafted and executed—the more-in-sorrow tone, the evocation of the little girl riding a school bus to integrate a school. Once again, we’ve seen a reliable rule in primaries: Sooner or later every front-runner takes a serious hit.
But that was an internal Democratic fight. There was also a less obvious, less dramatic series of moments that may linger for the party well into the general election next year. And that has to do with immigration.
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Every candidate on stage Thursday pledged in one way or another to radically alter the Trump administration’s draconian approach to undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. Prodded by the questioning of Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart—as much an impassioned advocate as journalist—the candidates pledged to restore protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to refuse to deport those here illegally who had committed no other offense and to provide health care for the millions in the country without documents.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg expressed the sentiments of his fellow debaters when he said: “This is not about a handout. This is an insurance program. We do ourselves no favors by having 11 million undocumented people in our country be unable to access health care.”
And then he added: “The real problem is we shouldn’t have 11 million undocumented people with no pathway to citizenship. It makes no sense. The American people agree on what to do. This is a crazy thing. If leadership consists of forming a consensus around a divisive issue, this White House divided us around a consensus issue. The American people want a pathway to citizenship and protections for Dreamers.”
In the moment, it’s understandable; the Trump administration’s treatment of children at the border has become a moral outrage with critics in both parties, and his reliance on anti-immigrant rhetoric has effectively turned the Democrats, simply by opposing him, into the pro-immigration party.
But when it comes to justhowpro-immigration—well, it’s hard to exaggerate how dramatic a shift this is from the approach of the past two Democratic presidents.
Here, for instance, is President Bill Clinton in his 1995 State of the Union address:
“All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens … It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”
And here is President Barack Obama in a 2014 interview with ABC News: “That is our direct message to the families in Central America: Do not send your children to the borders.” The U.S. Border Patrol, he said, should be able to “stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over … Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable.”
When Obama presented his health care plan to Congress in 2009, he specifically asserted that undocumented immigrants would not be eligible for subsidies. (In fact, it was this assertion that prompted South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson to shout: “you lie!” at the president. A subsequent fact-check determined that Obama was essentially right.)
Without question, the country as a whole, and not just the Democratic Party, has shifted to a more accommodating position on those here illegally; big majorities oppose the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, according to Gallup, and a path to citizenship is now favored or strongly favored by more than 80 percent of adult Americans. But almost the same percentage want an increase in border patrols to stop the flow of more undocumented immigrants.
And it is here that the Democrats on stage Thursday stood out not for what they said, but for what they didn’t say.
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