Democrats don’t want to talk about the migrant caravan. Last weekend, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer put out a joint statement accusing Trump and Republicans of being “desperate to change the subject from health care to immigration because he knows that health care is the number one issue Americans care about.”
Liberal commentators have been urging Democrats to refute Trump’s accusation that the party supports open borders. There are the taunting headlines like “No, Democrats Don’t Want ‘Open Borders.’” There are the opinion columnists who point out that every Democratic senator in 2013 voted for the Gang of Eight immigration bill, which included a large amnesty but had weak enforcement mechanisms.
Shouldn’t it be easy for Pelosi and Schumer to just say that the people in the caravan should not be allowed to walk right into the country, that any legitimate asylum claims will be processed according to the normal fashion, and that they advise anyone, especially vulnerable people, against making a 1,000-mile journey through Mexico with people they do not know? Maybe it should be easy to say that, but it isn’t.
In a way, it’s odd that Democrats can’t at least pay lip service to immigration enforcement. After all, their recent promises on the matter have been taken in the same spirit as Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s onetime opposition to same-sex marriage. These are things Democrats feel compelled to say to appease a retrograde electorate, but they don’t mean it and they won’t follow through on it.
Barack Obama tried to build a reputation as a “deporter-in-chief” by redefining deportation and juking the stats on immigration. The gambit to make Democrats look more serious about enforcement ahead of a grand bargain on immigration failed to convince enough voters, and Republicans ultimately refused to join in. When it failed, Obama reverted to his actual position, taking “a pen and a phone” in hand and signing an executive amnesty.
But pro-immigration activists are increasingly withdrawing their patience with Democrats’ appeasing statements and gestures on immigration. Consequently, aspirants to the Democratic nomination in 2020 are falling over each other in a rush to promise to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Liberal opinion leaders have been popularizing academic theories that paint all immigration enforcement as an expression of white supremacy.
Conservative voters and immigration restrictionists know that they have been snookered in the past. The 1986 amnesty was given in exchange for a promise of strict enforcement. The amnesty ended up being much larger than expected, and the enforcement never came. Given this history, and the arrangement of political power, and the increased power of pro-immigration activists in the Democratic coalition, restrictionists naturally conclude that liberals in 2018 lack the moral will and the political incentive to follow through on promises of strict enforcement, especially in cases where there is media spectacle.
America’s Democrats are not alone in this. European heads of state and EU functionaries worked hard to create the Dublin Accords, which govern migration and asylum policies on the European Union’s borders. But the commitment to these rules evaporated under the migration crisis in 2014 and 2015.
That this is such a persistent phenomenon on two sides of the Atlantic suggests that there is something within the anthropology and worldview of modern liberalism that makes maintaining the distinctions between citizens and non-citizens difficult at moments of stress.
I suspect it is a commitment to egalitarianism that takes legal distinctions between citizens and non-citizens to be “unreal” or fictive, which implies that enforcement of them at moral cost is unjust. There is also a habit of mind among liberals to take the treatment of any individual, as a judgment on the whole class of people that individual is held to represent. Pro-immigration activists say “No one is illegal.” But members of the caravan are less troubled by symbolism and continue to distinguish among individuals: One told the media, “It’s criminals in here.”
The Democrats’ ability to kid themselves about their commitment to border enforcement is one of the reasons America’s debate about immigration is so deranged. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want to avoid the subject of the caravan for a very good reason. Because now it has become obvious. In order to pass legislation, they ask Republicans and restrictionists to believe their commitments to enforcement. Out of the other side of their mouth, to avoid primary challenges and hassle, they ask activists not to.