Democrats have spent Donald Trump’s first year in the White House arguing about single-payer health care, free college tuition, and even impeachment. But party leaders are finally realizing that no issue on the left is more divisive than immigration.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After a 2016 bruising, progressives and centrists were expected to argue about economic policy while coming together around an immigration posture that reflects what so many of them see as their demographic destiny — future electoral victories made possible by the Latino and African-American voters.
Instead, immigration has become a wedge between factions on the left — with progressives outlining a strategy of aggressive confrontation while centrists worry about political fallout in red states. It played a role in last year’s contentious gubernatorial race in Virginia, and again during last week’s intense debate over the wisdom of using a government shutdown to force Republicans to save Dreamers from deportation. (That gambit failed, and the left cannot even agree on who to blame.)
This week the issue threatens to again divide Democrats, as Trump — who has snatched the initiative by floating legal status for undocumented immigrants — delivers a State of the Union address on Tuesday night and then sends lawmakers marching toward yet another deadline for a DACA deal.
In the view of progressives, the party’s problem sits with Democratic leadership, a group of veteran lawmakers who are older and whiter than most of their voters. That includes New York’s Chuck Schumer and California’s Nancy Pelosi.
“You’re seeing this newer energy from a group of progressive voters who are paying much closer attention now because of Trump and what’s happening in DC,” said Martin Quezada, a Democratic state senator from Phoenix. “And you’ve got this, for a lack of a better word, this older class who are in power who are still not embracing immigrants and the immigration issue. That’s why you’re seeing it become much more of a focal point.”
The data backs him up. Democrats depend heavily on the votes of African-American and Latino voters, constituencies that both overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates and are growing rapidly. Some Democratic leaders think tapping further into those voter blocs by engaging on issues like immigration is the key to the party's future.
Quezada was critical of Senate Democrats last week, when a majority of them voted to reopen the government despite failing to score an agreement with Republicans and Trump to protect from deportation the nearly one million young people bought to the country illegally when they were children — a group known as Dreamers. The state lawmaker tweeted that he didn’t know how Democrats “can look our #DREAMers, their families, or themselves for that matter, in the eye after this and tell them to trust our party has their backs.”
The tone echoed progressives’ reaction in November to a declaration from Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam, who said he wouldn’t support any sanctuary cities in his state. His statement drew a furious rebuttal, with one liberal group even calling the campaign “racist.”
The criticism in both cases was strikingly similar: Democrats were needlessly caving on an issue that — in addition to doing severe substantive harm to a key voter bloc — would have been a political winner had the party just pushed harder. That’s the kind of critique progressives have leveled time and time again at Democrats since Hillary Clinton’s defeat, on issues ranging from health care policy to taxes.
But in the case of immigration, the anger has simmered for longer than a singlel election cycle. Immigration advocates were infuriated during President Barack Obama’s tenure by the increased number of deportations early in his administration.
“We have had this experience under the Democratic Party of not necessarily having anything positive come to the undocumented community,” said Erika Andiola, an immigration advocate and Dreamer who had enrolled in Obama’s DACA program. “The reality is, in terms of the actual policy, there hasn’t been any urgency to solve the issue.”
Trump’s White House made immigration a point of emphasis from the start of his administration when he announced a travel ban on people coming from some Muslim-majority countries and then decided to terminate DACA.
Democrats haven’t responded passively, with nearly all of the party’s leaders condemning Trump’s decisions and even, in one instance, rallying at airports the day the travel ban was announced. Many operatives say the Democratic party has moved substantially to the left on immigration versus a decade ago, when many top Democrats emphasized border security and channeled fears that new immigrants could take working class jobs.
“Democrats rely on this broad coalition of interest groups. It’s people of color. It’s immigrant families. And we have seen through polling there is support for Democrats leaning into this issue,” said Angel Padilla, policy director of the liberal advocacy group Indivisible.
To Padilla, Democrats have a responsibility to fight back against policies he considers racist — especially when so much of the Democratic Party is now made up of voters of color.
“This is a racist president who is pushing this white supremacist agenda,” he said. “He wants to preserve whiteness and get rid of people of color.”
“It’s about a larger thing,” Padilla added. “Especially for Democrats, where this is so critical to the Democrats’ base to reject racism, it just puts it front and center.”
Padilla and Andiola say they both expect the Trump administration will find ways to pick fights on immigration from now until November’s midterm elections as they seek issues to divide Democrats. Whether immigration would seriously imperil an election Democrats almost universally expect to bring big gains is in question: Northam, for example, won his race in Virginia by a landslide despite the blowback from progressives advocates.
But Democrats nonetheless warn the party will have to find a better way to respond to the issue.
“There’s still time, plenty of time for Democrats to get this right,” said Quezada, the state senator from Arizona. “That’s what all of the research tells us, that Democrats gotta stand for something. And we have an opportunity to do it, we can do it. And I’m hopeful that we will.”