Democrats aren’t for open borders

So… close

“So what, you want open borders?”

You’ve no doubt read those words before, if you’ve followed our national immigration debate. It’s the standard right-wing reply for every objection to Trump immigration policy: don’t like the Trump administration separating young children from their families at the border?

“So what, you want open borders?”

Don’t like seeing an undocumented father arrested as he drops his kids at school?

“So what, you want open borders?”

Don’t like seeing a legal immigrant, here for decades, deported for pot charges?

“So what, you want open borders?”

It is a maddening catch-all, used for every pro-immigrant argument. But the worst part? Far, far too many Democrats fall right into the trap. Whether from sincere belief, or partisan pique or for the sheer love of fight, too many prominent Democrats respond to this challenge by (at least rhetorically) supporting open borders.

The past year’s elections were instructive: Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bill de Blasio (among many others) all supported calls for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be ‘abolished’, easily some of the worst political messaging I’ve witnessed.

To be fair, ‘abolishing ICE’ is one of those bumper-sticker policies that means something different to different people (most are simply calling for a change in strategy). But, to your average native English speaker, demanding we abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement could reasonably be read to mean you us to get rid of immigration and customs enforcement.

The Democratic base has taken cues from the top and run with it. Looking at Facebook this past week, friends of mine have decried the use of tear gas against migrants attempting to charge the border. Nevermind that CBP in the Obama administration reportedly had to use tear gas once a month on average, those using tear gas today are returning Jews to Nazi Germany.

So… “So what, are you for open borders?” may not be that unfair, given what some Democrats are saying. There’s only one problem: the Democratic Party does not, actually, support open borders.

How do you know what Democrats actually support? There are a few ways you could gauge it. You could ask the electeds… but they’re politicians, they’ll say whatever they think is in their political interest. You could poll the base… except the base doesn’t know much about policy. Or you could ask the right… their answer is just whatever Ocasio-Cortez said over the weekend.

I prefer looking at a metric that’s not as easily skewed: what have Democrats actually voted for?

The last real attempt to pass a major, comprehensive immigration reform package was in 2013, the so-called Gang of Eight bill. I remember it well, I started working at the National Immigration Forum shortly after the bill passed the Senate (I left after Trump was elected, I probably shouldn’t work in immigration for the good of the country).

The Gang of Eight bill, officially the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, was sponsored by Chuck Schumer. It passed in the Senate 68–32, with unanimous Democratic support. The bill had the support of progressive champions like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, and moderates like Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin. In short, the bill had universal Democratic support and was sponsored by the current Senate Minority Leader.

It’s not hard to see why the bill gained that support from the pro-immigration side. The Gang of Eight bill allowed for a legal pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country. DREAM Act youth would be eligible for a citizenship within five years of the law’s passage. It would have protected most of the current immigrant population.

But what enforcement measures were in this bill, so beloved by Democrats of all stripes? $40 billion in additional border enforcement over a decade. A merit visa immigration system. A requirement for universal e-verify. 3,500 more Customs and Border Protection officers. In fact, one of the main selling points Democrats touted in support of their bill was a border enforcement “surge” (Remember “surges”? This killed it). And despite the bluster on both sides about deportations, the Gang of Eight legislation would ultimately have resulted in the deportation millions of immigrants who didn’t meet the requirements for legal residence.

Not only are these enforcement measures tough, they are much tougher than anything currently being proposed by the Trump administration. Trump demanded $25 billion for his wall, Democrats were willing to spend $40 billion for enforcement that would actually work. The Democrats supported universal e-verify, probably the most effective enforcement policy. Trump, on the other hand, rarely pushes it.

The objections of hardcore immigration restrictionists had nothing to do with enforcement. They objected to increased visas for skilled and unskilled labor. They objected to the guest worker program. But polling shows the American people do not object to people coming here to work. Their position doesn’t have majority support.

The fact is the Gang of Eight bill was killed because Republicans were unwilling to expose their members to a tough vote. Then-Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it to a vote for months. After then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to David Bratt, an anti-immigrant zealot, in a special election in 2014 the effort was officially dead. The bill was killed to maintain a xenophobic political coalition, not because it lacked merit.. Or majority support.

It’s important to remember this, for both sides. Republicans should be aware that they’re fighting a straw man, there is no “open borders party”, increased legal immigration is not lawlessness. Democrats should be aware that, when they regain control, they will likely find themselves supporting some of the very tactics and policies they currently condemn. But most importantly, everyone should remember there is a bipartisan solution to our immigration problem: we came up with it five years ago.