Posted on May 2, 2019

Democratic Candidates Tune Out Voter Anxieties over Border Security

Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2019


The reluctance of Democratic candidates to address law and order challenges at the border has some of the party’s seasoned operatives and activists fearing a trap.

“If Democrats don’t change their narrative on this, Trump is going to cut them up,” said Jeff Faux, co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank supported by organized labor. “They have to start dealing with this and convincing people they are for secure borders.”

An ideologically diverse cross section of party insiders shares Faux’s fear and has warned candidates to resist pressure from activists on immigration issues to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, defund law enforcement at the border and even discard some existing border fencing.

The Democratic hopefuls have all taken aim at Trump’s policies, especially family separation and the border wall. But most of them have no clear border security plan of their own.

Some have embraced calls to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a proposal from the party’s left that Trump has branded as an abandonment of law enforcement. Some talk of a Marshall Plan of expanded aid to Central America, an idea that wins plaudits from scholars as a long-term policy but which would do little to address the crush of people on their way right now.

“Trump, in people’s minds may not have the answer, but the Republicans at least acknowledge there is a problem,” said a veteran Democratic pollster affiliated with one of the presidential candidates who spoke on condition of anonymity. {snip}

“If voters perceive we are for open borders, that is a big problem.”


“I don’t think we risk losing people,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. “There are a lot of people who may have even moved over to the Democratic side in the 2018 election because they couldn’t stomach the cruelty coming around the conversation on immigration.”


Lawmakers on the party’s left who launched the movement to terminate ICE are calling on the candidates to develop immigration policies that put a priority on protecting civil rights, processing of asylum applications more quickly and decriminalizing unauthorized crossings.


“It is a challenge to Democrats,” he said. “Treating immigrants and minorities fairly has become a growing priority for the progressive base.They can’t talk like Republicans. But they need to understand that for a lot of people in the center left and the center, if they hear a candidate talking about responsible controls and fair enforcement they will be a lot more generous toward refugees and immigrants.”


The tendency of Democratic candidates to chafe even at use of the word “crisis” to describe the situation at the border concerns some former officials.

“The country is not happy with what is going on at the border,” said John Sandweg, who served as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Obama administration. “It is legitimate to be saying it is unsustainable. The Department of Homeland Security is overwhelmed with the numbers. There is an insane backlog in the immigration courts. There is a crisis,” he said.

“If these numbers continue, it will break through and be seen by a broader swath of the public as a concern,” said Sandweg. “DHS is so massively overwhelmed that it would come to a point where a lot of voters will see this as a serious problem.”


Meanwhile, the 2020 Democratic hopefuls have found that hedging is a safe primary bet as they seek to impress a Democratic base that is enraged by the civil rights abuses documented at the border and the demonization of immigrants by the president. They are jostling to project defiance of Trump’s policies and his framing of immigrants as a national security crisis.

“I believe our border is more secure than it has ever been,” Julian Castro said on CNN this month. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said this month he opposes open borders, {snip}.

“I’d take the wall down,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said in February during an interview on MSNBC, referring to the existing fencing in his hometown of El Paso.

And all seven of the current senators among the 2020 hopefuls wrote colleagues last week urging them to vote against Trump’s request for increased funds for ICE.


The party’s centrist groups increasingly have warned the candidates against paying disproportionate attention to activists who may not represent the average voter.