How Democrats Can Turn Immigration Into Trump’s Kryptonite

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.

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).

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