President Donald Trump’s words and actions on immigration have outraged many Americans. Separating families at the border, packing asylum seekers in cages, seeking to ban Muslim visitors, virtually eliminating the nation’s refugee resettlement program, radically changing asylum rules and imposing a new wealth test for legal migration—even contending that the Statue of Liberty’s inscription should apply only to those who can “stand on their own two feet”—are offensive to our nation’s character and our history of openness.
And yet in trying to distinguish themselves from an unpopular president, Democrats might be losing the battle for a substantial segment of the voting population—moderate Republicans, independents and some traditional Democratic voters—by adopting extremely progressive positions on immigration, whether it’s abolishing ICE, providing government health care for the undocumented or glorifying immigrants as economic superheroes.
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When Democratic debates focus on decriminalizing violations of our immigration laws and degenerate into a feeding frenzy of attacks over the deportation practices of the Obama administration—an administration that the vast majority of Americans still view as advocating the expansion of access to legal residency for the undocumented—the Democratic candidates seem radically out of sync with truly mixed public opinion on immigration issues. When the most memorable debate exchanges center on providing government health care for the undocumented, they feed the fires of resentment already kindled by Trump that immigrants are getting “special treatment at my expense.”
If Democrats do not craft a smarter and more broadly appealing message, they risk alienating voters and helping Trump win reelection in 2020. But fortunately, new research on how Americans respond to disruptive forces like immigration and the looming majority-minority demographic shift offers guidance on how politicians can talk about immigration in a way that appeals to a wide swath of voters, without compromising the Democratic values of inclusion and compassion. Democrats and immigration advocates must offer a narrative that affords optimism and builds shared hope for the future, rather than focusing too narrowly on immigrants alone (making it about them rather than us) or deifying immigrants as better than Americans (the notion of immigrant exceptionalism).
As former Democratic elected officials in Michigan who have pushed hard for our state to welcome immigrants, we know how politically fraught the topic is, particularly in the Midwest, where many are uneasy about their place in today’s economy and society. But we have also seen how, if Democrats craft the right message, they can turn Trump’s radical immigration policies against him. In 2018, Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who narrowly flipped a Trump district blue, told one of us that her district’s Trump voters have called her to express anger at him only a couple of times: after his performance at the Helsinki news conference with Vladimir Putin, and after these voters had seen immigrant children locked up in cages at the border.
How do most voters actually think about immigration? For starters, about two-thirds of the public does not believe in either extreme in the immigration debate, according researchers at More in Common, a nonprofit organization that works to identify and address the underlying drivers of polarization. These voters constitute an “exhausted majority”—made up of moderates, the politically disengaged, and various passive and traditional liberals who reject the excessive partisanship and don’t feel strongly allied with any ideology.
To the extent that voters feel strongly about immigration, it is culture and American identity that drive the debate on those issues, not policy. Numerous polling and academic analyses of the Trump victory confirm that it was primarily cultural anxiety that drove many white voters to Trump, not economic insecurity. Polling conducted in the fall of 2016 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)/Atlantic found that 68 percent of white working-class voters said the American way of life needed to be protected from foreign influence. And nearly half agreed with the statement “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” It turns out that 79 percent of these white working-class voters who had these anxieties chose Trump in November, while only 43 percent of white working-class voters who did not share one or both of these fears cast their vote the same way.
In addition, research shows that talking about the coming “majority-minority” society and focusing on the “countdown” to that new reality only exacerbates racial anxiety and anti-immigrant sentiments. Social psychologists Jennifer Richeson and Maureen Craig found in 2014 that randomly assigned white Americans who read and heard more about America’s looming racial shifts were more likely to report negative feelings toward nonwhites and to favor restricting immigration. Richeson and Craig’s findings have been confirmed by several other researchers, including in 2018 by Dowell Myers and Morris Levy, who also found higher levels of anxiety about national census reporting when immigration is framed as the decline of the white majority population to minority status instead of being a story of increasing diversity. The answer for Democrats is not to pretend that these demographic shifts are not happening but rather to de-emphasize the differences between groups in favor of an overarching national identity.
Democrats also must acknowledge that their base is increasingly made up of urban voters who embrace immigrants and diversity, which can leave nonurban voters, who might have different needs and concerns, feeling alienated. University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer’s 2016 book The Politics of Resentment found among rural Wisconsin residents a number of clear, common attitudes: intense resentment toward their urban counterparts; frustration with government and decision-makers who they believe ignore their concerns and disrespect them, which leads these residents to favor less government; and a deep sense of grievance, which Cramer calls “redistributive injustice,” animated by the belief, true or not, that they are not getting their fair share of resources and attention.
There is an abundance of economic data to show the extraordinary contributions of immigrants. Nationally, immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses and are founders of more than half the nation’s billion-dollar startups, as well as 28 percent of its Main Street businesses. They dominate high-skilled STEM careers. Approximately 80 percent of the graduate students in U.S. colleges and universities studying electrical engineering and computer science are international students; nearly 40 percent of nation’s Nobel prize winners in science over the past two decades are immigrants. But while this story about immigrants’ positive economic impact has often brought new, powerful allies to the immigrant welcoming party (including our business communities in the Midwest), casting immigrants as “exceptional” can foster more resentment among voters who are struggling to find their own place in a new globalized economy and might get the impression that their hardships aren’t as worthy of attention as immigrants’.
How can Democrats address these voters’ concerns while also looking out for immigrants? What they need is a message of understanding that transforms immigration from the third rail to a story about American values and the achievability of the American dream for all. A story that focuses on what is at stake and available for the country and that speaks directly to the uncertainties and fears across the Midwest, the Rust Belt, and voters in America’s rural and African-American communities in an era of rapid technological and demographic change. Here are the foundations of such a story.
Revive the “American Dream” for all Americans. America aspires to be the land of freedom and opportunity for all. Talk about realizing the American Dream for everyone—a dream that is not limited to immigrants, but a promise made to all American families. This means making it very clear that undocumented immigrants aren’t deserving of special treatment. They have to play by the rules like everyone else.
Flip the script: Immigration builds American communities. Leaders need to communicate that immigrants want to be American, that they are coming to America for the same reasons they always have, for opportunity and freedom. And we all benefit from it. In our home state of Michigan, immigrants account for all the population growth in the past 30 years, and we are not alone. Immigrants make our communities more sustainable and more vibrant. The American immigration system is broken, and our nation’s security and prosperity demand that we fix it.
Emphasize fair play. Nothing fuels resentment more than feeling that someone else is getting a “handout” or a pass. Democrats need to reassure the American public that they want a modern immigration system that is both generous and secure, fair and orderly—that we will have secure borders. They should be clear that, as President Barack Obama did, we will prioritize and deport violent criminals, as we create clearer pathways to citizenship for families who are law-abiding, taxpaying contributors to our communities and economy.
Turn down the volume and add nuance. Immigration and immigrants are not the looming menace to our country and way of life, but neither are they the defining moral and economic good of America. Immigration is one of many ways—like building out education and infrastructure—that our country gets richer, stronger and more interesting. Other research has suggested that in times of growing complexity in life and a diversity of opinions, authoritarians rise by offering a return to simplicity, “sameness” and order. Leaders and immigrant advocates must help voters place the issue of immigrants and immigration in a similarly simple and orderly context, one of many important, but complicated issues.
We have seen what lies at the end of Trump’s leadership path on immigration. America at this hour desperately needs an alternative voice—a voice that speaks to the majority of Americans—creating a realistic vision for a stronger, more bonded, more resilient and more unified country.
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