Will moving to the middle on immigration deliver electoral success to Democrats in 2024?

Tom Suozzi points at supporters from a stage in front of four furled American flags
Rep.-elect Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), shown onstage at his election watch party Tuesday night, tested approaches to immigration that other Democrats are likely to employ in this year’s campaigns.
(Stefan Jeremiah / Associated Press)

For a decade, starting with President Obama‘s reelection and accelerating during Donald Trump‘s years in office, Democrats moved to the left on immigration issues, downplaying border enforcement and advocating for the rights of migrants to seek asylum in the U.S.

For a time, the public moved with them. The harsh enforcement measures pushed by Trump, especially the separation of children from their families at the border, generated an intense backlash among voters.

Polls during Trump’s tenure found a steady increase in Americans who favored more immigration and legalization for those who had entered the U.S. without papers.


That’s all changed.

As the number of migrants crossing the southern border has risen to record levels, public support for immigration has gone down, including among Democrats.

Republicans have pummeled President Biden on the issue, and it has divided Democrats.

The Democratic response, from the White House on down, has been to shift toward advocating stronger border enforcement.

In recent weeks, Republican overreach on the issue has given Democrats an opening. The victory Tuesday by Democrat Tom Suozzi in a special congressional election to fill the suburban New York seat formerly held by Republican George Santos served as proof of concept for how to exploit that. Party strategists clearly hope to deploy similar tactics in swing districts across the country this fall, including several in Southern California.


Containing a backlash

That’s an unsettling prospect for some California Democrats, who face the difficult task of reassuring voters concerned about chaos at the border without alienating voters on the left who strongly favor immigrant rights.


“The good thing about the Suozzi victory is that Suozzi won. The bad thing about the Suozzi victory is Suozzi won,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) told my colleague Ben Oreskes. “He doubled down on immigration,” Correa added. “Maybe that’s the winning formula. But to have immigration now be the piñata that everybody’s going to beat up on is not good.”

Even in his heavily immigrant district, which contains large Latino and Vietnamese communities, the “visceral reaction to the refugees, it’s universal,” Correa said.

“I have Latinos, I have undocumented [immigrants] saying, ‘Why are you letting in so many people when I busted my ass for 30 years, and I can’t get a work permit?’” Correa said. In a political campaign, he added, “You cannot sit there and explain to people. ... You’ve got to come up with a slogan. Is the slogan going to be ‘Kick them all out’? That’s the challenge we have.”

Immigrant advocates have been trying to avoid that. They stress that Suozzi wasn’t a one-note candidate. Amid his calls for tougher border enforcement, he also embraced traditional Democratic themes, including legalization for “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

“As immigration advocates, we have qualms with the specifics” of Suozzi’s campaign, Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a major immigrant advocacy group, said in a statement.


“Yet for all the rightful criticism, it’s important to understand the rest of Suozzi’s approach and to not let the short-hand takeaway be that ‘Suozzi won by running as a border hawk, full stop.’”

“In fact, Suozzi adopted a both/and approach, addressing concerns over the border but also not stopping there, and instead broadening his immigration focus” to include “full-throated support for citizenship and legal status for long-settled immigrants,” she said.


The public shifts

That “both/and approach” — combining legalization for longtime U.S. residents with tougher enforcement at the border — would sharply contrast with the Republican position on immigration.

In his campaign, Trump has repeatedly pledged to carry out the “largest deportation since the Eisenhower administration” and has accused migrants of “poisoning the blood” of Americans.

But that Democratic position would also mark a big change from four years ago, when some Democratic candidates on the party’s left embraced calls to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and to repeal criminal penalties for repeated border crossings.


Biden’s dilemma

Biden never embraced that anti-enforcement rhetoric, but it had a clear impact on the policies his administration pursued in its early days, as he issued executive orders to unwind many of Trump’s border policies.

Three years later, the number of migrants crossing the border has soared to record levels.

How much of that resulted from changes in U.S. policy is the subject of bitter partisan debate. But there’s no debating the impact on public opinion: The share of the public favoring increased immigration has dropped significantly, including among Democrats. Immigration has become the top issue motivating Republican voters and one of Biden’s biggest liabilities.

A new survey released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center finds that 77% of U.S. adults call the situation at the southern border either a “crisis” (45%) or a “major problem” (32%). Although Republicans are far more likely to use the label “crisis,” two-thirds of Democrats agree that it’s at least a major problem, with only one-third viewing it as either a “minor problem” (26%) or “not a problem” (7%).

Only one-quarter of Democrats and just 1 in 10 Republicans say the government is doing a good job of responding to the problem.


Republican overreach, Democratic response

Republicans have effectively used public concern about the border to undermine Biden. Although public concern about immigrants taking away jobs are muted these days by an economy with record-low unemployment, Republicans have connected border chaos with public worries about crime.


Pew’s survey showed that a majority of Americans — 57% — say they believe the large number of migrants entering the country has made crime worse, compared with 39% who say it is not having much impact.

The widespread public concern led Biden to agree late last year to negotiations with Senate Republicans over new border policies. The talks led to a bipartisan proposal that would have changed U.S. law to speed deportations and reduce the ability of migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.

The White House and a majority of Senate Democrats accepted that plan, even though it abandoned the long-standing Democratic position that any new enforcement measures be coupled with steps toward legalization for Dreamers. That drew angry protests from immigration supporters, including California Sen. Alex Padilla, who publicly split with Biden over the issue.

But then Republicans, responding to demands by Trump, abandoned the compromise they had negotiated. Their move handed Democrats an opening, which Suozzi skillfully took advantage of.

The question now is how far the pendulum will swing back and whether Democrats can find a middle ground on immigration without splitting their party in the process.