Op-Ed: To win over moderates, Democrats need a coherent immigration policy

Dreamer Yesenia Aguilar of Reading, Penn. holds her one year old daughter at an immigration rally on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Two conflicting trends emerge from a new poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Americans are largely unsupportive of President Trump’s approach to managing immigration. At the same time, they trust him to handle many aspects of the issue as much as, or more than, they trust congressional Democrats on the issue.

The poll results, released last week, should send a message to Democrats: Opposing Trump’s policies without offering a clear alternative will not be enough to win over public opinion on immigration.

According to the poll, a majority of Americans disapproves of each of Trump’s signature immigration positions: 62% of respondents said they were against the construction of a border wall; 66% said they disagreed with proposed cuts to legal family migration; 72% said they disliked the separation of families at the border; and 94% said they didn’t believe the president’s contention that many migrants who come to the United States are gang members or drug traffickers.


And yet, when asked whether they trust the president or congressional Democrats to protect American jobs and secure the border, most respondents selected Trump. Independent voters, especially those in swing districts, said they trusted the president more to manage undocumented migration, attract the best and brightest immigrants and handle immigration policy overall.

Democrats offer little beyond a condemnation of Trump’s policies.

For Republicans, this is the reward for crafting a clear, if punitive, approach. Trump’s actions and rhetoric have communicated his concern about immigration, which, according to a recent Pew poll, one in four Americans believes is the most pressing political issue of the day.

In the Washington Post-Schar School survey, those who considered immigration the most important issue also had relatively extreme preferences. They were more likely to support building a wall, more likely to want to reduce legal immigration levels, and almost twice as likely to support Trump’s policy of separating families at the border.

And despite some of the lowest levels of undocumented migration in decades, two-thirds of respondents supported more funding for border security, and a majority said they would rather keep asylum seekers in detention facilities than release them on parole. Many blamed immigrants, not the Trump administration, for the separation of families.

But there were also signs of possible inroads for the Democrats. Responding to the survey, 85% of people said they supported citizenship for so-called Dreamers, and another 83% said they supported a path to legal status for undocumented people more broadly. About nine in 10 said they believed that welcoming immigrants has had either good or mixed results for the country over time.


Even more promising, since 2010, when the Washington Post last conducted a survey on immigration, the share of respondents who said the government was “not doing enough” to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country has dropped dramatically, from 75% to 46%.

Between the disapproval of Trump’s specific measures and these more humane views on immigrants as a group, Democrats should be well positioned to capture moderates when it comes to immigration. But the Democrats offer little beyond a condemnation of Trump’s policies. Their most recognizable counter-proposal is the campaign to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a polarizing idea that is not likely to gain widespread support.

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There are better solutions for Democrats to unite around. Merit-based immigration appears to draw popular support. Such a system need not be based only on education and professional skills. It could take into account a range of data, including previous visits to the U.S., proficiency in English, shortages in the labor market, the number of family members who are American citizens and underrepresented countries of origin.

The U.S. could also adopt exit stamps to keep track of visa overstays; private family sponsorship of refugees; short-term work visas; and bilateral mobility treaties, which satisfy demands in the labor market without granting residency to large numbers of people. These options are likely to enjoy broad support.

Democrats’ response to Trump’s immigration policies resembles the Republicans’ reaction to the Affordable Care Act. They are condemning sweeping changes without offering a coherent alternative. Just as Republicans failed to repeal Obamacare, Democrats will fail to abolish ICE, and they have little else to offer.


Trump has overplayed his hand on immigration. But if Democrats have no cards to lay on the table, the White House will win anyway.

Justin Gest is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and a co-author, with Anna Boucher, of “Crossroads: Comparative Immigration Regimes in a World of Democratic Change.” Tyler Reny is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UCLA.

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