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Immigration and the Democratic Hopefuls

To date, Democrats have largely failed to lay out a comprehensive vision of what our immigration policy should be. Some of the announced presidential candidates have, over time, staked out positions on specific issues, such as the status of the Dreamers or the abolition of ICE, but they’ve largely left it to Donald Trump and his allies to set the broader terms of the debate.

If the candidates hope to offer a genuine alternative to the administration’s policies, it’s imperative that they shift the debate from sloganeering about the wall and “open borders” to a consideration of an underlying question: what priorities and values will guide our immigration policy in the coming years? Will we continue along the present path of increased militarization and incarceration, or will we forge policies guided by a vision of a more just society?

No challenger will succeed in this project unless he or she can begin to counter Trump’s greatest political weapon: fear. Right from the start, candidate Trump began stoking people’s anxieties about their job security, their physical safety, and the cohesion of American society itself. Since his election as president, he has used the enormous power of his office to amplify his message, supported by Fox News and other conservative outlets. If Democratic challengers are to succeed, they’ll need to employ facts and narratives skillfully to align the mainstream debates to reality. For the facts, they’ll need to draw on extensive research, including a recent report of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that documents the positive overall effects of immigration on U.S. economic growth.

They’ll need to show that Trump is wrong on crime and immigration. A number of recent, large-scale studies of metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. have shown no correlation between crime and the growth of immigrant communities. If anything, crime in those areas has decreased. Moreover, challengers to Trump must show that his repeated characterizations of migrants as constituting a destabilizing “invasion” are dangerously distorted. Although news reports have focused on recent migrations to our southern border of people fleeing violence and destitution in Central America, the greatest percentage of people coming to the U.S. since 2010 is from Asian countries, and many of these immigrants are college educated. The percentage of foreign-born persons in the U.S. – 13.7 percent as of 2017 – is still lower than the peak percentage of around 15 percent at the turn of the twentieth century.

But in addition to neutralizing the weapon of fear, successful challengers to Trump must show in stark terms the tragic failures of the present policies. They must remind voters how Trump’s harsher policies on asylum, prosecution, and detention have failed to deter migrants from coming to our southern border (a record 76,000 came this past February). They must keep before the public mind those images of cruelty that have repelled people of all political persuasions: the separation of migrant children from their parents, the caging of children in make-shift facilities, the teargassing of migrant families by U.S. agents at the border, the deaths of both adults and children in detention.

The challengers must call out the racist discourse animating these policies – and the white supremacist logic that moves inexorably to greater and greater cruelty. They must show their skill in using facts and stories to remind us of our common humanity – not only in the suffering experienced as a result of injustice, but also in the countless gifts and contributions that flow from centuries of immigrant experience.

On my small street in Los Angeles, I greet neighbors who are first-generation immigrants from Thailand, India, France, Myanmar, Korea, Argentina, Israel, and China. While I type this column, construction workers and painters from Mexico and El Salvador are finishing up a remodeling project the next street over, and, in a mini-mall close by, a fitness trainer from Trinidad is helping seniors stay healthy as they age. All of these individuals contribute in countless ways – including taxpaying – to the vitality of my community, and I can only ask whether or not the candidates will sufficiently honor their contributions.

Will the Democratic hopefuls speak forcefully about the choices facing our communities? Will they sufficiently highlight the failures and abuses of the current policies as Trump seeks a record-breaking $51.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security? Will they speak of spending $2.7 billion on warehousing up to 54,000 people a day in detention facilities (many of them run as for-profit enterprises), when humane and tested alternatives to detention exist? Will they speak of the corruption and tragic waste in such expenditures when so many other human needs are neglected – in restoring our infrastructure and in providing more equitable opportunities in human services, education, and health care?

The challengers wishing to replace Donald Trump in the White House have a tall order if they want to display genuine leadership on the issues of immigration. At the very least, voters deserve a higher standard (i.e. than heretofore employed) on which to evaluate that leadership.

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