Column: Democrats are in danger of falling into Trump’s trap on immigration

A young migrant in El Paso.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump is running for reelection the same way he won in 2016, dividing the country into hostile camps and telling white voters he’s their only protection against black and brown immigrants.

So he has targeted Ilhan Omar, a naturalized American from Somalia elected to Congress in November, and suggested that she and other minority Democrats should “go back.” At a rally in North Carolina last week, the president’s supporters took his cue, chanting “send her back.”

Democrats responded with appropriate outrage to Trump’s vilification of dissenters with different skin colors along with his draconian policies of mass deportation and separating migrant children from their families.

But on immigration, Democrats are in danger of falling into Trump’s trap.

Most of the candidates have stampeded to the left on immigration, apparently in hopes of channeling voter indignation and winning support from Latinos.


Some, including Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren, want to “decriminalize” crossing the border without papers and treat it as a less severe civil infraction.

Others, including Kamala Harris, have promised not to deport any migrant unless he or she has committed a serious crime.

At a debate last month, all 10 candidates onstage said they would ensure that undocumented migrants are guaranteed healthcare.

Trump responded by declaring the election over. “That’s the end of that race!” he tweeted.

Not necessarily. Immigration ought to be a losing issue for the president; most of his policies are unpopular.

Yes, we should be fair and humane to people who are here … but we also want a secure border.

— Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security chief under President Obama

A CNN poll last month found that most Americans disapprove of Trump’s crackdown on migrants. Most said immigrants in the country should be offered a path to legal residency, and most said the United States should allow refugees from Central America to seek asylum — a resounding repudiation of Trump’s policies.

But there’s a catch: Most voters also say they want limits on who can enter the country. Substantial majorities support making the border more secure and hiring more Border Patrol agents — but not building the wall the president yearns for.

Traditionally, Democrats have supported both sides of that equation — humane treatment for migrants and secure borders — and it was a popular position.

But so far this year, few have spoken up in favor of border enforcement of any kind. In the debates, only four of 20 candidates mentioned border security at all — and then only in passing.

“What is being lost is the overwhelming consensus that I know exists in the American public,” said Jeh Johnson, who headed Homeland Security under President Obama. “Yes, we should be fair and humane to people who are here … but we also want a secure border.”

In a blistering op-ed column for the Washington Post, Johnson accused Castro, Warren and Harris of taking “extreme policy positions that are unworkable … to win support from a vocal and committed segment of [the] party’s base — and simply for the sake of a good applause line.”

He argued that Harris’ promise to forswear deportation for non-felons would be “tantamount to a public declaration … that our borders are effectively open to all.”

Other former officials said Castro’s proposal — to make unauthorized entry into the country a civil violation instead of a crime — would have little practical effect. Castro has argued that a law is needed to ensure no future president can revive family separations, the Trump policy of removing children from their relatives.

Latinos are divided too. The president of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, says he thinks guaranteeing healthcare for undocumented migrants is a bad idea. “There has to be some moderation,” Domingo Garcia said.

“There’s going to be a generational split,” Matt Barreto, a UCLA professor who runs Latino Decisions, a polling firm, told me. “Younger voters are going to be more interested in bold, progressive actions. Older voters will be comfortable with more traditional positions.”

So here’s a challenge and an opportunity for any Democrat willing to tackle a tough problem in a balanced way — someone like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker or Michael Bennet.

Grab this issue and run with it.

Proclaim, as you already have, all the ways you reject what Trump has done. Reaffirm your commitment to protecting “Dreamers” — undocumented migrants who arrived as children — and to giving their parents a path to citizenship. Spell out how you’d fix the asylum process, reunite separated families, and reform the Border Patrol and ICE.

Then explain the other pieces voters want to hear: How would you make the border more secure? How would you make sure criminals don’t get in? Whom would you deport and why?

Sure, there’s a risk involved; activists on the left will denounce you as an apologist for the Obama administration, which deported some 3 million migrants in hopes of winning Republican support for an immigration reform bill. (It didn’t work.)

They’ve confronted Biden twice, in Philadelphia and Dover, N.H., but the former vice president has stood his ground. “I think people should have to get in line” to immigrate, he said.

This could be your Sister Souljah moment — the episode in 1992 when Bill Clinton, then a candidate, criticized an inflammatory hip-hop artist to show he wasn’t captive to his party’s interest groups.

You’ll probably have to suffer through an unpleasant moment or two. But you might win the support of millions of not-quite-progressive voters who are still looking for a champion.