There’s a reason immigration-reform advocates, who overwhelmingly align with Democrats over Republicans, called President Obama the “deporter in chief.”
Obama intentionally ramped up enforcement in his first term—aimed at recent border-crossers and criminals, but for the purpose of increasing deportations—as a preemptive concession to immigration-reform skeptics, who opposed allowing other unauthorized immigrants to become citizens over time.
The basic trade on offer was unprecedented border enforcement in exchange for a pathway to citizenship, and Obama cracked down as a show of good faith, to prove he wouldn’t ignore security measures once he signed a new law into place. That the ultimate goal wasn’t “open borders.”
Because his ends were virtuous, many of Obama’s supporters ignored or downplayed his means, but his critics in the reform movement weren’t wrong, and perhaps understood the GOP opposition better than he did. Obama ultimately relented when he realized that his negotiating partners weren’t meeting his show of good faith with good faith of their own.
The lessons of Obama’s immigration legacy—and of his legislative legacy in general—were clear to many liberals at the time, but have come into greater focus in the Trump era. And one of the principal lessons is this: It is a mistake to cause harm as a dangle for bipartisan support. Democrats today, and in any future majority, would do better to accept the nature of the opposition, and try to help as many people as possible, as much as possible, in any particular political moment.
President Trump has separated thousands of children from their parents at the southern border, and likely orphaned a gutting percentage of them. He did this by his administration’s own admission both to demonstrate cruelty—to deter future asylum seekers from migrating northward—and to capture hostages, which he could trade to a Republican-controlled Congress for billions of dollars in border-wall funding. Trump and the GOP are now asked to answer for their hideous gambit, and their response is to dissemble: to equate “enforcing the law” with deploying law-enforcement resources to arrest and prosecute as many mothers committing misdemeanors as possible; and, in a call back to the bad-faith of the Obama era, to refer to the alternative—to the status quo immigration policy—as “open borders.”
This is a doubly false binary, both in that there is no binary, and in that each half of the binary presented is a lie.
House Speaker Paul Ryan propounded these lies on Thursday when he told reporters, “I’m beginning to think that the Democrats who make this alternative argument are less interested in keeping families intact and more interested in having open borders.”
Trump repeats a version of it on an almost daily basis.
The lie extends not just to the current Democratic consensus on how to treat asylum seekers, but to the past as well. It entails blotting out all of the steps Democrats took during Obama’s presidency to build Republican support for a reform bill that Republicans, having pocketed concessions, swiftly rejected.
“Trump’s opponents could learn something from [French President] Emmanuel Macron,” according to one conservative writer, “who works to convince skeptics of immigration he will enforce borders even as he advocates for immigration.” History: erased.
If this revisionism serves any strategic purpose, it is to help ensure that actual history repeats itself. If and when liberals return to power, conservatives would love nothing more than for their opponents to reprise their preemptive-concession strategy, so that they can bank the freebies, and then reject broader compromises as “open borders.”
This same lesson applies elsewhere in the realm of domestic policy. Democrats wasted most of a year in 2009 trying to entice Republicans to support health-care reform. They conceded substantive ideas they liked, and adopted Republican ideas, without realizing Republicans were stringing them along, and when the process was over, zero Republicans voted for the health care bill they had helped to weaken, and they called it “socialism” anyhow. One of the consequences of this error was higher premiums and deductibles, which harmed actual people, some of whom surely punished Democrats in 2016 by staying home, or voting for Trump, who turned around and sabotaged the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats can upend this vicious cycle. It’s important for people who care about the truth to rebut these lies, but Democrats can’t count on people who don’t care about truth to be deterred by fact-checking. All they can do is refuse to reward liars—accept what they’re up against, and do as much good as they have the power to do whenever they can.