How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It

There’s a profound realignment coming, and U.S. anti-immigrant politics is on the way out.

Donald Trump is in the White House, so it might surprise you to learn that U.S. support for immigrant rights is at a historic high. In 1994, 63% of Americans agreed that “immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and health care,” according to the Pew Research Center. By 2019, 28% thought that, while 62% agreed that “immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.”

The Republican Party has made xenophobia a cornerstone of its politics. But Democratic voters have moved in the opposite direction. And fast. Until a decade ago, Republicans and Democrats held similar opinions on immigration. Then they diverged sharply. Last year, 83% of Democrats had positive views of immigrants, compared to 38% of Republicans. And Republicans who oppose immigration have come to oppose it in more brazenly racist terms, growing more likely since Trump took office to believe that the United States risks losing its identity if it is too open to immigration. At the same time, immigrants and an increasingly diverse Democratic Party base have emphatically supported of immigrant rights and freedom. The task of the Left is to join the immigrant rights movement in forcing Democratic politicians to catch up to their base—or, if necessary, to replace those politicians.

Under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the war on immigrants was bipartisan. But escalating enforcement and the spectacular demonization of immigrants provoked a powerful movement in response. Starting in 2006, that movement began to weaken xenophobia’s hold on the Democratic base, even as Republican xenophobia become more radical. Today, nativism is increasingly a project of a right wing that—while tenaciously using anti-democratic levers to maintain power—is in long-term decline.

This polarization presents dangers, as when Trump moves to terrorize asylum-seekers and ban Muslims and Africans. But it also provides immense opportunities for the immigrant rights movement, because the bipartisan war on immigrants can’t continue as such without bipartisan public support. It’s an opportunity for the socialist Left to put immigrant workers at the core of an agenda that transforms this country for all workers.

It’s no coincidence that immigrants and their children—Latinos and Muslims in particular—are now core to Bernie Sanders’s base. Sanders pledges not only to end the war on immigrants but also to transform the rotten system that made it possible.

Bernie has a stellar immigration plan, but it’s his universal class-struggle politics that has been key to drawing the support of Latinos, who’ve long been central to an emerging multiracial U.S. working class and its labor struggles. For decades, immigrants have been stigmatized for using social services, softening up the public for an attack on everyone’s social services. Sanders’s proposal for Medicare for All includes undocumented people, a radical break with an ugly history of using racism and xenophobia to attack the welfare state.

The Right wins when it uses racism to divide ordinary people against one another. The Left wins when it embraces a capacious and inclusive “we the people” against economic elites. That is why we’re starting to win right now.

During the 1990s, Bill Clinton co-opted Republican nativism, painting immigrants as a welfare drain and criminal threat. With support from both parties, Congress militarized the border and passed laws that connected the deportation machine to the country’s criminal justice system. It also made deportations more difficult to fight, and deportees’ exclusion more permanent. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, immigrants came to be portrayed as a terrorist threat, and the deportation machinery was attached to the national security state. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (the latter earning the moniker “Deporter in Chief”) pushed for more deportations and more border crackdowns—in the hope of winning right-wing members of Congress over to “comprehensive immigration reform,” which combined legalization of undocumented people with guestworker programs and new enforcement measures. The right wing, however, consistently refused to support anything that looked like “amnesty.” They accepted the crackdowns as a free gift, offering nothing in return—all while further radicalizing their position and accusing Democrats of advocating open borders.

Any Democrat who defeats Trump will likely at minimum reverse escalations in the long-running war on immigrants—such as his Muslim ban and deep cuts to refugee admissions. We on the socialist Left must work with organizations like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Movimiento Cosecha and others in fighting for just bills and executive actions that demilitarize the border, legalize undocumented immigrants, and break the ties between the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems— rejecting all compromise with the nativist Right.

What history demonstrates is that such compromises are not only morally odious as policy but also disastrous politically. For decades, the liberal establishment has abetted nativist politics and caused misery for immigrants. But worker freedom depends on immigrant freedom, because immigration status is used to divide the working class. And immigrant freedom depends on worker freedom, because immigrant struggles on the job are inseparable from their struggles for legal status. The good news is that immigrants are at the center of a U.S. working class that is starting to fight back and win.