The U.S. Presidential Campaign Cements Political Parties’ Deepening Schism on Immigration
The U.S. presidential race has entered the home stretch in a deeply divided nation. Although other issues have gained greater salience in the campaign, the candidates’ positions on immigration are a study in contrasts. President Donald Trump continues to promote a dark view of the role immigrants play in the economy and society. He has characterized Democrats’ positions as encouraging violence and chaos, and has branded Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s immigration plan “the most radical, extreme, reckless, dangerous, and deadly immigration plan ever put forward by a major party candidate.” Biden, who has said Trump is waging a “campaign of terror against immigrant communities,” portrays immigrants as not only an asset to the country but also victims of a dizzying set of harsh Trump administration policies that must be unwound. Striking as these differences are, they are the culmination of a gradual evolution of the two political parties over the last two decades.
Trump’s 2016 campaign featured immigration as a central theme like no other successful presidential candidate had done before. And he followed through on his campaign promises as president, implementing more than 400 executive actions on immigration to date, in order to build a more restrictive and punitive U.S. immigration system. It is a playbook he must believe works well for him, which is why his 2020 campaign has returned to it. Unlike in 2016, however, immigration has been supplanted in the president’s campaign speeches by issues such as support for law enforcement, opposition to racial justice protests, and placing conservatives on the courts. But when Trump speaks about immigration, he does so with instinctive familiarity. In a remarkable recognition that the Republican Party has fully embraced Trump’s positions across all issues, the party declined to offer its own platform during the Republican National Convention in 2020 and instead resolved to “continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.”
While Trump is quick to point fingers at Democrats for what he calls their recklessness on immigration and eager to brag about successes at the U.S.-Mexico border, he has offered few new specific policy proposals for a second term. In a bullet-point list of second-term priorities, he touches on themes such as blocking unauthorized immigrants and potential legal immigrants from using public benefits, increasing deportations of gang members, tackling human trafficking, cracking down on so-called “sanctuary cities,” and prohibiting companies from replacing U.S. workers with foreign workers. But the list fails to outline concrete policies to accomplish these goals. As with so many other issues, Trump has prioritized the political narrative over policy specifics on the campaign trail, although his administration has successfully implemented a number of priorities, including constructing nearly 350 miles of border wall, essentially eliminating asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, and making it more difficult to immigrate legally to the United States.
If asked to infer what a second Trump term may look like, one place to start is the Unified Agenda of regulations the administration has already put into motion. It features dozens of regulatory changes at various stages of the rule-making process. In the absence of an approved platform or detailed policy proposals, this document offers evidence that during a second term, the Trump administration would impose new restrictions on a range of different types of immigration (see Table 1).
Meanwhile, former Vice President Biden’s position on immigration has evolved over time, partly in response to a leftward push from the Democratic base. But despite pressure to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and roll back the most contested of Trump’s immigration actions on day one, his stance remains fundamentally pragmatic. Unsurprisingly for someone pitching himself as a unity candidate, Biden focuses on issues for which there is broad consensus within the party, including undoing some of Trump’s major actions in addition to proactive proposals such as protecting unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, known as DREAMers, and tackling the root causes of migration.
While activists persuaded Biden to promise a 100-day deportation moratorium, that proposal does not appear in either the campaign’s list of proposed policies or the Democratic Party platform. It shows up in a separate policy document, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations, although Biden confirmed his commitment to it as recently as August. Still, it is not clear which of the recommendations from the unity task force, which were compiled by experts and activists picked by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would find favor in a Biden administration.
Table 1. Trump and Biden Immigration Policy Proposals Advanced for the Term Beginning in 2021
Note: The Trump policies are taken from the administration’s proposed rules in the Federal Register and the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, and, on the border wall, administration statements; the Biden proposals are from his campaign’s website as well as recent speeches and statements.
Sources: Biden for President, “The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants,” accessed September 24, 2020, available online; Joe Biden interview with the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on August 6, 2020, Rev transcript, available online; Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders remarks during March 15, 2020 presidential debate, Rev transcript, available online; Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter, Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2020), available online; U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, “Spring 2020 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions,” accessed September 24, 2020, available online.
How Did We Get Here?
As sharp as the distinctions between the Trump and Biden positions on immigration are, they are not just a product of differences between the individual candidates, but reflect a widening divide between the parties over the last two decades. Indeed, public opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center show that since 2004, when 47 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans said they believed immigrants strengthened the country, attitudes toward immigration have become deeply divided along party lines. By 2019, 83 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans agreed with the idea that immigrants strengthened the country—a 45 percentage point difference.
An examination of party platforms from 2000 to 2020 reveals a similar trend: the two parties’ positions on immigration have undergone seismic shifts, arriving at a point where Republicans have fewer and fewer categories of immigrants whose admission they support, and Democrats have found fewer and fewer enforcement mechanisms they embrace. While parties’ platforms might not always translate into policy, they are important symbolic representations of the parties at particular moments in time.
In 2000, both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms supported multiple aspects of the immigration system without making it a dominant theme. Democrats emphasized naturalization and family immigration, but they were clear to also support enforcement against employers of unauthorized immigrants and called for a system that “balances a strong enforcement of our laws with fair and evenhanded treatment of immigrants and their families.” Republicans, meanwhile, called for increased border and interior enforcement, and supported addressing the root causes of migration and increasing admissions of high-skilled and temporary agricultural workers. The main contrast was that Democrats opposed a guestworker program, arguing such programs “lead to exploitation.”
The 2004 platforms reflected the lingering effects of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, as both parties pivoted to viewing immigration more through a national security-centric lens. The Democratic platform supported working with regional partners to increase security and set forth proposals to safeguard air, land, and sea ports. Meanwhile, the Republican platform committed to increasing border security by providing new resources to the Border Patrol and establishing stronger partnerships among federal, state, and local enforcement agencies. At the same time, Republicans highlighted the importance of continuing a productive relationship with Mexico to address immigration and expressed support for immigration reform to create a “safe, legal, orderly, and humane” system. The critical difference between the two parties was again over temporary workers.
Partisan Divisions Grow
With the backdrop of the Great Recession in 2008, both parties’ platforms shifted significantly. Republicans dropped support for any type of additional immigration, including guestworker programs and high-skilled immigration. Their platform also became even more enforcement-heavy: advocating for finishing construction of a border fence, expediting deportations, increasing enforcement against visa overstayers, expanding state- and local-level involvement in immigration enforcement, and denying federal funds to sanctuary cities. Democrats, on the other hand, emphasized comprehensive immigration reform—the idea that changes to the immigration system should be made in a single bill that included provisions to increase enforcement, provide a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and expand channels for legal immigration. But their platform also expressed support for increasing border security, which some thought was a necessary concession to win Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform.
In 2012, the Republican platform was again largely enforcement-focused, but it did include a section on granting visas to immigrants with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, and supported a guestworker program. So while the blueprint was less open to additional immigration than the 2000 and 2004 platforms, it renewed some baseline support for legal immigration that the 2008 platform had abandoned. The Democratic platform, however, marked the beginning of the end of support for increased enforcement—a perhaps unsurprising development given growing controversy over the Obama administration’s rising number of immigration arrests and deportations. While the party stated that the Southwest border was more secure than ever, it advanced nothing on enforcement besides noting that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was prioritizing deportation of criminals. Much of the platform instead focused on President Barack Obama’s accomplishments and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
The Divide Becomes Entrenched
The paradigm shift became complete in 2016. The Democratic platform did not express support for any kind of enforcement except for prioritizing action against immigrants who posed safety threats. Lengthier was the list of various enforcement actions the party opposed: “raids,” “roundups” of families and children, deportations of veterans, family detention, and operation of for-profit detention centers. The party was largely focused on the importance of several types of humanitarian protections and creating pathways to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, but Democrats dropped any mention of comprehensive immigration reform. The Republican platform, for the first time since the 1920s, advocated for reducing legal immigration, arguing that “it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year.” Notably, Republicans urged reforming guestworker programs to eliminate fraud and “serve the national interest,” again a 180-degree shift from their full-throated support of such programs in the early 2000s.
In many ways, the differences in the presidential campaigns today further cement the 2016 paradigm shift. The Democratic Party platform advocates dismantling even more of the current enforcement structure than in 2016. It calls for ending ICE enforcement actions in workplaces and communities, prohibiting enforcement that leaves children without a caregiver, ending enforcement collaboration between state/local and federal authorities, and positioning detention as “a last resort.” The platform also fleshes out Democratic support for legal immigration much more clearly than in past years, providing concrete ideas for reforms to the system, most of which are reflected in Biden’s positions.
The Republican Party’s position this year is even more remarkable. By not adopting a 2020 platform and instead simply embracing and expressing support for President Trump, the president’s policies have de facto become those of the Republican Party.
COVID-19: The New Backdrop for Evolving Positions on Immigration?
The parties’ positions on immigration have sharply evolved in divergent directions over the past two decades. Even as they further polarize this year, immigration as an issue has been less salient in the public consciousness and the presidential campaigns than it was in 2016. Fifty-two percent of voters told the Pew Research Center in July and August that immigration was a top issue for them, down from 70 percent in mid-2016. Immigration was “very important” to 46 percent of Biden supporters and 61 percent of Trump supporters in 2020, compared to 65 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters and 79 percent of Trump supporters in 2016. This shift is likely to Democrats’ benefit, as it means they do not have to be as responsive to Trump’s statements on immigration as during the last campaign.
The parties’ evolution reflects wider, increasing polarization which has led to gridlock in Congress and a deeper social divide in the United States. But it is also a product of mammoth and unpredictable external events including 9/11, the Great Recession, and Trump’s election. The COVID-19 pandemic is almost certainly the next such external event. However, surprisingly, neither the 2020 Democratic platform nor the candidates’ official public positions focus directly on what the public-health crisis will mean for immigration and for immigrants. The platforms and candidates’ proposals thus may not reflect the reality that the administration seated come January will be confronted with as the pandemic stretches into 2021. While Trump has proven that his administration is committed to increasing immigration enforcement and reducing legal immigration even during the pandemic, it is reasonable to predict that immigration policy may be subservient to public health and economic recovery responses in a Biden presidency.
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U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. N.d. Spring 2020 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. Accessed September 24, 2020. Available online.