In This Episode
What’s the best way to fight for a humane immigration policy? Immigration advocates talk about the decisions that shaped the debate and where we go from here. Learn more: www.thewildernesspodcast.com
The Wilderness with Jon Favreau is presented by Honey. Join for free at www.joinhoney.com/wilderness
[clip of President Obama] We the people declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal is the star that guides us still. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.
[clip of President Trump] When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
[voice clip] We are somebody [crowd repeats back] and we deserve [crowd repeats back] all equality. [crowd chanting]
[voice clip] We are talking about 700,000 young people in this country right now who are an utter fear about their future.
[voice clip] The Commander in Chief in an Oval Office meeting, referring to people from African countries and Haitians with the most vile and vulgar language. When ignorance and bigotry is allied with power, it is a dangerous force in our country.
[voice clip] I have put in place a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry on our southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you.
[voice clip] Under the zero tolerance policy, the systematic separation of children from their parents: 2,000 since early April across the entire southern border. So it’s a massive amount.
[news clip] Tonight, these heartbreaking images from the southern border are sparking growing outrage.
[voice clip] This administration did not create a policy of separating families at the border.
[voice clip] There’s no bill. Donald Trump has just—
[voice clip] Right, that’s his policy.
[voice clip] Have you seen the photos of children in cages?
[voice clip] Some have referred to them as cages. But keep in mind, this is a great big warehouse facility where they built walls out of chain-link fences.
[voice clip] —housed, in what are essentially summer camps.
[news clip] Newly-released audio, you can hear their desperation. [crying]
[voice clip] I read today about a 10 year old girl with Down’s syndrome who was taken from her mother and put in a cage.
[voice clip] Wah wah.
[voice clip] I read about a—did you say wah wah?!?
[voice clip] This is an out of body experience. That’s not the America I know.
[voice clip] I think at the core of people’s hearts on this issue, they’re faced with three questions: culture, security, economy. Are immigrants integrating or isolating, are they threats or protectors, are they giving or taking? It’s much deeper than politics. It’s a deeper cultural debate, kind of about who we are as a country, as trite and kind of clichéd as that sounds.
Jon Favreau: Another cliché, but undeniably true, America is a nation of immigrants. It’s the motto on the seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum, out of many one. It’s right there on the Statue of Liberty: give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Unless your family came over on the Mayflower, or was already here, you’ve benefited from this country’s immigration policies. But of course, none of this has prevented immigration from being one of the most divisive issues in politics today. On one hand, we’ve elected an openly xenophobic president who made opposition to immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, who’s now enacting some of the most extreme inhumane immigration policies we’ve ever seen. On the other, recent polls have shown record levels of support for immigration, including policies that would offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, especially children. How do you explain this? How does a nation built by immigrants have such mixed feelings towards newcomers? What does it mean to be an American? And who gets to answer that question? We’ve wrestled with these questions from the very beginning, and one of the reasons immigration is such a difficult issue is because it intersects with a bunch of other really difficult issues: race, culture, the economy, and national security. But immigration is no longer an issue that our country or our party can afford to ignore, especially what we have a president who’s caused a humanitarian crisis on our border as a way to fire up his base and further divide the country. We learned in earlier episodes that race is still one of the deepest fault lines in our politics. Immigration is intertwined with race, but in some ways it makes for an even more potent argument to voters who feel left behind by a world they think is changing too fast. Those people are taking our jobs. Those people are taking our benefits. Those people won’t learn our language or our culture. Those people are dangerous. There’s plenty of evidence that in 2016, anti-immigrant sentiment was one of the most powerful drivers of Trump’s vote. It’s also true that immigrants and people of color make up the most loyal and fastest growing segment of the Democratic coalition. We’re the party that looks like the face of America, that embraces diversity and pluralism, and the idea that being an American isn’t about loyalty to a specific heritage or culture, but a broader set of ideals and values. So how do we reconcile the politics on this? How do we get to this dark place on immigration and where do we go from here? As Democrats and activists organize and march and do everything we can to stop the worst of Trump’s cruelty and abuse, we need to figure out how to win a majority at the ballot box that won’t just defeat Trump, but one that will give us the governing coalition necessary to finally pass humane, comprehensive immigration reform. I’m Jon Favreau and you’re listening to The Wilderness.
Cecilia Munoz: We have always been uncomfortable with who comes. This is true throughout our history, and even when we’re in a pro-immigrant mood, we’re always a little nervous about who comes. And that’s just a reality. And it’s, we are never not in that place. We never get past it.
Jon Favreau: The voice you just heard is Cecilia Munoz, the daughter of immigrants from Bolivia who went on to become President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser. She’s been on the front lines of the immigration battles all her life. And you’ll be hearing a lot from her this episode. What Cecilia just mentioned about our discomfort with newcomers has some pretty deep roots. In 1790, America’s first immigration law stated that all new citizens had to be, quote “free white people.” In 1882, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all immigration from China, and this was after Chinese immigrants helped build the transcontinental railroad. We also passed a law in 1924 that restricted immigration from countries in Asia,[clip [ and set a quota for immigration from other nations. Not great America. We only got rid of the quota system in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, a law that was championed by Senator Ted Kennedy, which emphasized skilled labor and family reunification.
[clip of President L.B. Johnson] This bill says simply that from this day forward, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationships to those already here. This measure will really make us truer to ourselves, both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways.
Jon Favreau: The law dramatically changed our immigration system and was attacked by critics who said that America should remain a European nation. Since 1965, it’s led to nearly 60 million immigrants coming to the United States, and most of them from places like Mexico, Latin America and Asia. The Immigration and Nationality Act was also passed a year after the government ended what was known as the Bracero Program, a World War two initiative that invited migrant workers from Mexico to come fill labor shortages in agriculture. Nearly 4.6 million immigrants came in a 22- year period, and the end of the program in 1964 didn’t stop them from crossing the border.
[voice clip] One to two million people sneak into the United States every year. Half of them scramble across our unfortified desert border with Mexico.
[clip of President Reagan] The borders are out of control. This has been a situation in our borders back through a number of administrations.
Jon Favreau: By the early 1980s, between two and five million people were in the US illegally. And what was Republican hero Ronald Reagan’s solution? Amnesty! Seriously.
[clip of President Reagan] I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.
Jon Favreau: He signed the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered a pathway to citizenship to all undocumented immigrants. Nearly 2.7 million people were granted amnesty under this law. It also included tougher border enforcement and penalties for companies that hired undocumented workers. Needless to say, the issue of illegal immigration didn’t go away after 1986, but for a long time, the proposed efforts to fix the problem were mostly bipartisan. George H.W. Bush worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the Immigration Act of 1990, which expanded legal immigration, but increased enforcement to stop illegal immigration. And even though anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise during the ’90s, the Republican Party still nominated a presidential candidate in 2000 who strongly believed in a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.
[clip of President George W Bush] There are some who hint that probably the best way to deal with 11 to 12 million people is to get them to leave the country. That’s impossible. The system is broken because there are people who are exploiting human beings for material gain.
Jon Favreau: So how did we go from that, to this?
[clip of President Trump] But this we are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration.
Jon Favreau: One of the bigger turning points was September 11th. Suddenly, there was a fear that we could be attacked again at any moment, either from people sneaking into our country or from people who are already here. And the federal government wanted the power to find those people. The Department of Homeland Security was created, and within that, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, known by its acronym ICE, was also created, and their primary job was to deport undocumented immigrants. There was also a rising xenophobia in America against Muslim immigrants, and all immigrants. And the rise of talk radio and Fox News stoked these flames, telling people that these immigrants were bringing crime and that they were taking away their jobs and benefits.
[voice clip] Some reports suggest that in Los Angeles, 95% of all outstanding homicide warrants are for illegal aliens.
[clip of Rush Limbaugh] You immigrate to our country, you have to speak the native language. You have to be a professional or investor. No unskilled workers allowed.
[voice clip] You break into my country? You know what, I’m going to take your DNA, I’m going to put you on a plane, and I’m going to send you the hell back to your frickin country.
Jon Favreau: Not surprisingly, this sentiment found its way into Republican politics, and the anti-immigrant forces in that party got stronger. I’ll turn it back over to Cecilia Munoz, who takes us back to 2005, a time when she helped run the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy organization in the country.
Cecilia Munoz: I now think the bottom fell out of this issue without us really recognizing it at the time. So the trajectory here is that in 2005, December 2005, the Republican House passes this really ugly immigration bill, the Sensenbrenner bill. It criminalizes being here illegally. It criminalizes doing anything to help anybody who is illegally here. So if you give somebody a ride, it’s a criminal offense. Really extreme piece of legislation.
Jon Favreau: The Sensenbrenner bill officially called the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act sparked a backlash throughout the country.
Cecilia Munoz: The following Ash Wednesday, Cardinal Mahoney in L.A. says out loud in the press: if this law passes, I will instruct my priests to defy it.
[voice clip] Are we supposed to have everybody coming up to communion, show us documents that they’re here legally? This punitive approach, if you just trail it out to its extreme, shows how absurd that is, and it’s not going to change anything.
Cecilia Munoz: And that makes headlines all over the country. It gets picked up dramatically in Spanish-language radio, where there are a lot of individual deejays who have big followings, especially in places like L.A., but really all over the country.
[overlapping Spanish radio]
Cecilia Munoz: The combination of Cardinal Mahoney and the deejays leads to like five times as many people showing up for the marches as anybody expected.
Jon Favreau: In March and April of 2006, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the Sensenbrenner bill. And on May 1st, known as a Day Without Immigrants, more than one million mostly Latino demonstrators marched in cities across the country.
[voice clip] As for me, I am 20 years old, I’ve been here all my life, and yet I’m still called an immigrant.
[voice clip] I myself am a social worker, and I work with a lot of undocumented immigrants. It would criminalize my act of helping children and families. And I just don’t see how that is helping anyone with only one.
[voice clip] We only want the possibility to work and do the things that the United States needs to.
Cecilia Munoz: All over the country, it bursts onto the national consciousness and it’s this enormous phenomenon that, frankly, none of us predicted—to see all of these, frankly, Latino-looking people, out on the street saying: we’re not going to be invisible anymore. I remember that as a moment of great pride. I marched with my daughters.
Jon Favreau: A year later, you see a much more progressive bipartisan bill making its way through the Senate.
Cecilia Munoz: The premise of the 2006 Senate bill was that immigration is broken and you have to deal with it comprehensively to fix it.
[voice clip] Year after year, we’ve had the broken borders. Year after year, we have the exploitations of workers. Year after year, we see the people that live in fear within our own borders of the United States of America. This is the opportunity to change it. Now is the time.
Cecilia Munoz: The idea was, let’s not just say we don’t want these workers and all recognize that they’re going to risk their lives and come anyway, let’s experiment with a small guest-worker program and give those workers the ability also to earn their way to permanent status if they want to stay. And the idea was, if there a line people can get into, maybe they won’t come illegally. Maybe they’ll get in the line. So do you have a terrible House bill and a pretty good Senate bill and everybody who was working on immigration reform figured, well, you don’t want to reconcile those two bills to get to a final product because the final product will be terrible. So let’s wait till next year.
Jon Favreau: So there was the awful Sensenbrenner bill in the House that makes even helping an undocumented immigrant a federal crime. There was a much better bill in the Senate, but for either of those to become law, there would have to be a compromise that would have still been pretty bad. So immigration advocates decided to wait for a better political climate, but it didn’t get better. It got worse.
Cecilia Munoz: It pains me to say it, but I think it’s true. I think the marches scared the tar out of a lot of people in the country. What happened in 2007 was we tried to pass effectively more or less the same bill, and you’d walk into a Senate office and the receptionist would be holding the phone like two feet away from his or her ear because the phones were lighting up and people were shouting at them. This was a moment when Lou Dobbs was on CNN every night talking about this bill, saying all kinds of crazy stuff.
[clip of Lou Dobbs] Taxpayers will be paying for the immigration attorneys for illegal aliens if they’re working in agriculture . . . legal status one day after their application is filed, 2.6 trillion dollars. That is the estimated cost to cover the retirement benefits of 12 million illegal aliens if this amnesty legislation becomes law.
Cecilia Munoz: The anti-immigrant groups are small, and their constituency is pretty small. I used to think of it as 300 white guys with like, speed dial calling Senate offices, but they shut down the switchboard in the Senate. And at that point, when the Senate bill comes to the floor in June of 2007, George Bush, the day of the vote, is calling senators in his party saying: I need you to do this. But by that time, he had no political capital with his own party anymore.
Jon Favreau: At the time George Bush was a lame duck president with a 32% approval rating that dipped into the 20s right before he left office. Conservative Republicans knew that they didn’t have to do a thing he asked. And by the way, about a third of all Senate Democrats, mostly from red states, also voted against immigration reform. It turns out they were also scared by all those white guys calling the Senate. It turns out they were just scared of the issue in general. In the fall of 2011, Democrats almost lost a special election for a House seat in deep blue Massachusetts after the Republican candidate hammered his opponent on illegal immigration. Rahm Emanuel, who had just led the Democrats to a massive victory in the 2006 midterms, warned that immigration had become the, quote “third rail” of American politics, and had captured people’s anger and frustration with the economy. So you had a party that was caught between this increasing anxiety over immigration, and a base of progressive activists and Latinos who are more energized than ever to get something done. And this is the dynamic heading into the next presidential campaign. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, could see that inside the movement, something was shifting.
Ali Noorani: The dog was kicked, and you saw this emergence of voter registration, political power. But at that point in time, I think the Democratic Party did not know how to engage on the question of immigration reform. Then you move into 2008, the Obama election, and you really saw kind of this groundswell of Latino voter engagement.
[clip of President Obama] Soy Barack Obama—[speaks Spanish]
Jon Favreau: Obama’s always identified with the immigrant story. He had a father from Kenya. He’s got a sister who’s half Indonesian, who married a Chinese-Canadian. And he dealt with all the birther bullshit that he was some secret Kenyan Muslim because of his skin color and foreign sounding name. So Obama wasn’t a stranger to xenophobia, and his entire worldview aligned with the views of immigration advocates.
[clip of President Obama] [Spanish] in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country, people who are working together across racial lines, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian: they can do anything. There’s nothing that we cannot do.
Jon Favreau: In the Senate, Obama voted twice for immigration reform. And when he spoke at La Raza in July of 2008, during the campaign, he made a pretty big promise.
[clip of President Obama] I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time for a president who won’t walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform just because it becomes politically unpopular. That’s the commitment I’m making to you. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President of the United States of America.
Jon Favreau: Of course, we all remember what happened during Obama’s first year as president. The financial crisis overwhelmed the system, and Obama used whatever political capital he had left to pass the Affordable Care Act. Even then, he still tried to pass a smaller version of immigration reform at the end of 2010, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants as long as they completed two years of college or military service and passed a criminal background check. It was called the DREAM Act, and Democrats have been trying to pass it since 2001. Obama tried again, but in the end he came up five votes short in the Senate. Exactly the number of Democrats from red states who voted no. It was pretty enraging and it wouldn’t be the last time.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: Well, first of all, I will say that I’m a Texan, and Texans are not used to the cold and the snow that I remember from 2010. So I just remember being really cold.
Jon Favreau: Greisa Martinez Rosas was a college student in 2010. She missed two finals to travel to Capitol Hill from Texas so she could rally for the DREAM Act. She became an activist during that time, shortly after her father was deported. Now she’s deputy executive director of United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led activist network. She’s also one of the 800,000 undocumented young people living in this country.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: This was in December, the lame duck of 2010, and we were singing Christmas carols and just calling for a miracle that the DREAM Act would be passed during that time. I remember being up in the gallery, the Senate was taking a cloture vote on whether or not to bring the bill up for a vote. And I saw the senators that I had talked to throughout the week and I had shared my story with, slowly got to the podium and either put the finger up or finger down, yea or nay. And I think that the most disappointing thing about that day was that it was five Democrats that did not vote with us that made the difference. And that all of the work and all of the sacrifice that immigrant young people had made and the risks that we took by sharing our stories felt like it wasn’t enough, and that in some ways the adults have failed us and we were left with nothing. And so it was it was really painful. I remember after we realized that we were not going to win, there was a big huddle in the Capitol. We just promised each other that we weren’t going to let this break us and that we were going to keep going.
Jon Favreau: Meanwhile, Obama was also trying to shape immigration policies that he had the authority to change without Congress. Cecilia Munoz was part of the conversations that the White House was having with the Department of Homeland Security.
Cecilia Munoz: Janet Napolitano is the secretary of DHS. She stops workplace raids in 2009, that’s the first thing she does, and then she starts working with her team to actually devise priorities for immigration enforcement. So understand that before the Obama administration, the way DHS, and the INS before it, worked was: there are a lot of undocumented people and our job is to find them and they’re all the same. There is no strategy here. No law enforcement agency worth its salt has no strategy or no priorities. Right? If you live in Dallas, Texas, police there are not going to treat a jaywalker with the same enforcement intensity as an axe murderer. Like that’s not how police forces work, but that was how DHS worked. So DHS starts putting forward policy memoranda to begin to shape a set of priorities. And to be perfectly honest, we kind of tiptoed in to establishing enforcement priorities, because we were very worried that we’re going to let somebody go who turned out to do a terrible thing, and it would be a crisis. So Janet Napolitano, she was trying to walk a line where she was signaling that we were going to be more careful and more thoughtful about how we conducted enforcement. But even if you do, you still have 20,000 officers who you have to get to behave in this way.
[TV clip] The Obama administration is deporting substantially more people than the Bush administration did.
[voice clip] For us, this president has been the Deporter in Chief.
[voice clip] More than 10,000 children who came to the U.S. without their parents have been ordered out of the country.
[voice clip] We have a lot of Hispanic students now who are afraid to go to school.
[voice clip] As you’re saying, you always have the legal authority to stop deportations, then why did you do for two million people?
[clip of President Obama[ We’re not, we’re not, no, listen Jorge, we’re not, we’re not—
[voice clip] For six years you did, you . . . many families . . . Deporter in Chief.
[clip of President Obama] Listen Jorge, listen, I, I, I—you called me Deporter in Chief. I, I did not—
[woman speaker] I was an early Obama lover in Texas, and I think that I believed in the hope and the change that he brought forward, and to see the rise of deportations under a Democratic administration, that reached a high of about two million people was particularly demoralizing for young students, and a young organizer that had taken time to do what I could to elect the person.
Jon Favreau: Obama was pushing for a better immigration policy, but he kept getting blocked by Congress or slow-walked by the bureaucracy. There’s certainly an argument to be made that he could have pushed the Department of Homeland Security a lot harder to slow down the deportations. But you heard Cecilia talk about the legal and political concerns that weighed on the White House. And the truth is, when Obama said we are a nation of immigrants, he would usually add we are also a nation of laws. All of this weighed on him at the end of his first term. After the DREAM Act failed in 2010, the young people who would have benefited from the law, known today as Dreamers, urged Obama to take action on his own to protect them from deportation.
[woman speaker] We launched our campaign called End Our Pain, but we were lifting up the deportations of young immigrants, and the pervasive story was like, of course not, like Democrats, this administration is not supporting Dreamers. And there were stacks of the names of people and their stories and their faces and their families that said: actually this is happening under this administration and it needs to stop. And President Obama, you have the power to do something about this after the failure of the DREAM Act in Congress, we needed to stop the bleeding of our people, and the deportation of these young people who knew no other country but this one.
Cecilia Munoz: I was part of multiple, really tense meetings that the president had with my friends in the immigrant rights world, where they just wanted him to do executive action and they were frustrated with the Congress, and he was entreating them to keep their foot on the gas. The solution I have to offer through executive action will never be what you can get done through the Congress. It can’t be permanent. It can’t be as big. It can be challenged legally. Like the way to get this done is through the Congress of the United States. Don’t take your foot off the gas.
Jon Favreau: Obama was conveying what his legal and policy advisers had told him for a long time: that it was unclear whether acting on his own to protect the Dreamers would hold up in court. But the Dreamers kept pushing Obama and Obama kept pushing his team. Finally, in June of 2012, during the summer of his re-election campaign, Obama made an announcement.
[clip of President Obama] This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient and more just, specifically for certain young people sometimes called Dreamers.
Jon Favreau: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA, was, as Joe Biden might say: a big fucking deal. It made more than a million young immigrants eligible for a work permit that would protect them from deportation.
Cecilia Munoz: It seemed reasonable to devise a mechanism for just taking some people off the table for deportation. It gets portrayed as if it were a benefit program. DACA is a really aggressive use of enforcement authority.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: I think DOCA has been a prototype or an experiment that has proven to the country that when there are protections, when there are opportunities open to immigrants in this country, we all thrive and we all benefit from it. So it has proven the point that you give some protection to immigrants, and the world does not fall apart. Like it actually benefits all of us, our schools, our hospitals, our community safety.
Jon Favreau: Obama went on to win in 2012, and Latinos made up a record 10% of the electorate. Mitt Romney also got a lower percentage of the Latino vote than Republicans had received in the last three presidential elections. Nearly every analysis after 2012, including one from the Republican National Committee, said that Republicans had to do better with Latinos—a lot better—if they ever hope to win another national election. Obama would say that the fever had broken, and it seemed like we were finally about to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Cecilia Munoz: So the Republicans are going to come to the table now to do immigration reform. And sure enough, the Gang of Eight forms: four Democrats, four Republicans in the Senate. They negotiate a bill. And the White House, we had written a bill, so we’re feeding pieces of it to the Democrats and that very much influences the outcome. And they pass a bill with 68 votes in 2013 in the Senate.
Jon Favreau: And then it dies in the House.
Cecilia Munoz: It never got brought up. We could not get the speaker, John Boehner, to bring it up, and he was in regular conversations with the president about it. He assured President Obama that he was going to bring it up. He brought somebody onto his staff who had been Senator McCain’s immigration person. They brought up principles in the Republican caucus, which blew up. And then Eric Cantor loses his primary. And then after that, the speaker calls President Obama and says: remember this thing I told you I was going to do, I’m not going to do it.
Jon Favreau: Boehner’s caucus wouldn’t let him do it. There were a decent number of Republicans in the Senate who represented states with large immigrant and Latino populations, but not in the House. Most Republicans had gerrymandered themselves into districts that were overwhelmingly white and conservative, places where anti-immigrant sentiment was strong. And so all of our careful negotiations with Senate Republicans, the entire strategy where Obama tried not to make the issue too partisan or political, didn’t get us anywhere. Again, Ali Noorani:
Ali Noorani: Think over the course of the campaign, there was just this outpouring of excitement and energy. And then there was a really severe level of disappointment. I think a lot of folks had unfair expectations of the Obama administration again. And felt that: oh, well, he didn’t fix it, why do we think that somebody else is going to fix it? And, you know, there’s no difference between Trump and Clinton anyway. And, you know, I think it’s pretty clear that that was the wrong assumption. The way that I’ve always seen this is that you’ve got 20% of the public who is for immigrants, for immigration reform. You got 20% of the public that is totally against. It’s always a 60% of the middle. But immigration is unique because in that 60%, you can make the case to somebody of why immigration is important to them from a cultural perspective, from a security perspective, from an economic perspective. And Trump, to his credit, he understood those anxieties, he tapped into them, and he made a case to a large segment that 60% that immigrants are not a benefit to him and their families.
[clip of President Trump] They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. We’re going to build the wall. We have no choice. We have no choice.
Jon Favreau: David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic who’s a former George W. Bush speechwriter and current Never Trumper, elaborates on these anxieties.
David Frum: I worry above all about social cohesion. I think this is something that we need to think about in the age of Trump a lot. One of the things that is wrong with Trump. He has shrunk the American idea of who is us. Immigration becomes a lightning rod. Democrats look at Trump voters from hard-pressed areas and they say: OK, well their economic concerns, and cultural concerns—and the economic concerns we can listen to, and the cultural concerns we cannot listen to. But in the mind of an actual voter, they don’t organize their brains in the way that political professionals do. They don’t see a difference. What they see is my town is not as prosperous as it was. And there are a lot more people here who don’t speak English, and they see that as one thing, not as two.
Jon Favreau: It seems like we’re back to the question we asked in our episodes about race: should Democrats try to persuade these voters or can we ignore them? And if we should try to persuade them, how do we do that without compromising our principles or shying away from the fight for humane immigration policy? History suggests that we need to reach that middle 60% who Ali was talking about. We need them to vote not only for presidents, but for senators and House members, who can finally pass the reform that neither Bush nor Obama could get done. And we need to make sure they don’t vote for another four years of what we have right now.
[news clip] President Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “s-hole” countries.
[news clip] The agency in charge of U.S. immigration services, updating its mission statement and removing the phrase “nation of immigrants.”
[voice clip] We are pursuing a zero-tolerance policy at the border.
[TV clip] This is the first time ever that children have been separated on a systematic basis from their parents, and that is because of the Trump administration. People in here are locked up in cages.
[TV clip] Trump administration officials have been sending babies, and other young children, mmm, to at least three “tender-age shelters” in South Texas.
Jon Favreau: In April of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy that would require the prosecution of every immigrant who crossed the border illegally, even those fleeing violence and persecution from their home countries. Sessions and other Trump officials also said that they’d be separating children from their parents as a way to deter other families from crossing the border. These parents and children have been held in separate detention centers, and many can’t even contact each other, and have no way of knowing when or where they’ll be released. It’s not the first time that the government has pursued this kind of large-scale detention. In 2014, the Obama administration confronted an influx of mostly unaccompanied minors at the border who are fleeing violence from Central America. Their journey through Mexico to the US was incredibly dangerous. Many were smuggled, abused, even killed. And the administration tried to deter these young people from making the trip. They detained a lot of them, and because there were so many, there weren’t enough beds or resources to properly care for these kids who were kept in what was essentially a juvenile prison. Eventually, the number of border crossings fell. Trump’s policy has been much different, and much worse. For one thing, the number of border crossings has been far below what Obama faced in 2014, which means that Trump is creating a crisis that doesn’t exist. For another, these aren’t mostly unaccompanied minors showing up. These are parents and children: young children, toddlers, infants as young as eight-months old. And thousands have been ripped away from the arms of their mothers and fathers, screaming, crying with no idea if they’ll ever see them again. The public outcry has been loud and sustained like nothing we’ve seen in the Trump era. Dozens of Democratic politicians have joined activists and organizers at the border, eventually forcing Trump to sign an executive order that’s supposed to keep children and parents together while they await deportation hearings. But there are still thousands of families who haven’t been reunited, and no end in sight to the zero-tolerance policy that’s creating chaos on the border. Trump once again feels emboldened, and has made it clear that he’ll be hammering Democrats as MS13-loving, open-border advocates all through the fall campaign. Democrats of every stripe are fighting hard on the family separation policy, but many who are running in red states are still worried about how much to talk about immigration in the fall, or exactly what they should be saying about an issue that energizes Trump’s base. So where do we go from here? We’ll dive in after the break.
Jon Favreau: Welcome back. We just learned that the politics around immigration has never been easy. There’s always been resistance to newcomers. There’s always been suspicion and resentment. We thought that might change after Barack Obama was elected with the help of the most politically-engaged Latino community in years, and after Republican leaders said they were willing to pass immigration reform. We were wrong. Instead of reform, we got a guy who’s jailing toddlers and rejecting asylum seekers. And now Democrats have to find a way forward, not just through the current crisis, but through the messy politics of immigration reform that we failed to navigate before. Ali Noorani reflects on lessons learned from the past battles.
Ali Noorani: December 2010 was a lame duck session where two things are going to happen on that day: in the morning, the DREAM Act was going to be taken up by the Senate, in the afternoon Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And I remember kind of going through that debate and we had done everything according to the book, the playbook in 2010: we had turned out voters, we had protested. But the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell community, they never talked about politics, they never talked about policy—they made a case to the American public of what it means to serve our country openly and freely. They won. We lost. It was at that moment where I realized that if we’re going to win on immigration, #1) we’ve got to change the way we’re talking about it. But #2) I wanted to figure out how do we engage the kind of geographic and the political middle of the country. The only way you can do the on an issue like this, is a cultural conversation. It comes down to respect and comes down to being willing to listen to somebody. So for us, our kind of informal motto is to: meet people where they are and not leave them there. And what that means is that you end up in a lot of awkward conversations, [laughs] but you end up actually making some friends that you don’t expect. For a lot of folks who are really experiencing this cultural demographic change, when an immigrant who—documented or not is saying—I demand my rights, puts them on their heels. When an immigrant is saying: I’m grateful for this country and what this country has done for me and my family and I would like to be treated fairly—that’s a subtle but a really important difference. And that tends to come out in those conversations.
Cecilia Munoz: To use the Dreamers as an example.
Cecilia Munoz: Again, Cecilia Munoz.
Cecilia Munoz: They put their lives on the line. They’re with some of the bravest people I know. And what they are right in all of our faces, basically saying: I dare you to tell me I’m not an American. And they’re right. They’re absolutely right. But in the minds of some people in this country—who are not bad people—those people have questions about: are you getting in line in front of other people who have been waiting in line? Like, am I rewarding your parents for violating the law? Like, those are not inherently racist or bigoted questions. I think they’re just policy questions. And it’s important to create the space to have those kinds of conversations, I think. My daughters tell me that’s an old-fashioned view. [laughs] It is how we got stuff done. We have to be willing to communicate a message to people who start out being uncomfortable. The economic evidence about the benefits of immigration has been clear forever. But people in this country don’t believe it, and our political debates are not so much driven by data than driven by emotion. And the times that we have been successful, have been when we understand that, and give people in the middle a reason to be for it. The argument for immigration reform is: here’s the thing we agree on, this is broken, right? Even people who don’t like immigrants, agree that it’s broken and want to fix it. And I don’t have to persuade you to like immigrants in order to get you on my side of that debate, because what I’m offering is a fixed system when, you know, we agree we don’t want a broken system. I don’t have to win your heart and mind on are immigrants good or bad, to convince you to support that legislation.
Jon Favreau: This might be a little hard to process, especially when we hear the vile shit that comes out of Trump’s mouth, and the mouths of some of his supporters. But then I remember how they’re the 20% who might never be convinced, not the 60% who might be. And I think about how Cecilia and Ali are two immigration activists who’ve been fighting this battle their entire lives. And I think, you know, maybe Ali’s right: we need to meet people where they are, but not leave them there.
Dan Wagner: In the work that we’ve done, there are a lot of different feelings about immigration. There are a lot of anxieties about immigration, both among Democrats and among Republicans.
Jon Favreau: Data scientist Dan Wagner, who is crunching the data on this issue in every state and county where Obama won and Hillary didn’t.
Dan Wagner: And a lot of the tests that we’ve done, two things have stuck out. Number one is if you speak to the history of immigration and the amazing people who are immigrants who have come to this country, and you provide the context around those immigrants, which speaks to the potential of immigration in our history—specifically Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi’s family, Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, et cetera—and it allows people to essentially kind of align their feelings about immigration with the history in the tradition of the country. And secondly, as Democrats often deeply fail to recognize that this is a largely a Christian country and within, you know, our kind of effete, cosmopolitan bubbles, it’s not—we don’t go to church, we don’t do these things because, you know, whatever we’re having fucking brunch and drinking mimosas . . .
Jon Favreau: Avocado toast.
Dan Wagner: Avocado, yeah, avocado, toast. They’re going to church and they are aligning their communities around a shared belief that the nature of their country, and the nature of themselves is anchored in the words of Jesus Christ, and that they believe that we are all God’s children. We should be leading with content that says that. Even though many of us are not religious, these people are. And I think their religion has a lot of beauty in it, in that regard. If we recognize the common humanity that we have them, the policy is aligned with that common humanity. But we don’t. We bitch. We call them racists. We do whatever. And as a result, we feel good, but we lose.
Ali Noorani: So in 2013, just as Senate Bill 744 was moving through—
Jon Favreau: Ali is referring to the bipartisan reform bill from 2013 that we talked about earlier, the one that passed the Senate but never made it to the floor of the House.
Ali Noorani: We partnered with a coalition, the Evangelical Immigration Table, to run radio ads on Christian radio stations in targeted states. The voice on most of those ads was a local pastor. So somebody they could relate to.
[Ad] Hello, I’m Pastor Roger Raymer. Hello, I’m Pastor Doug Carriker. God hears the prayers of his people. I’m Pastor Regal McGunion.
Ali Noorani: Over the course of about 18 months of that campaign, we ran them, it was all red states/.
[Ad continues] Our immigration system is broken and it is hurting everyone . . . And today, the lives of 11 million of our neighbors hang in the balance. . . Christ calls evangelicals to compassion and justice.
Ali Noorani: A evaluator from University of Pennsylvania evaluated the campaign. We didn’t even know about it. Needless to say, we’re terrified, right? We were like, what are you doing right now? But she found that the messaging led a conservative white evangelical, their opposition to immigration reform dropped by more than 10 points.
[Ad continues] So I’m asking you to join a growing movement of Christians who are appealing to our political leaders for immigration solutions that respect each person’s God-given dignity . . . respect the rule of law . . . protect family unity . . . guarantee secure borders . . . ensure fairness to taxpayers . . . and establish a path toward citizenship.
Ali Noorani: But the punch line was: now is the time when we must pray for our elected officials.
[Ad continues] Our Alaska elected officials need your prayers, and to hear your voice. Become a prayer partner for reform.
Ali Noorani: It wasn’t a political ad. It was an ad that was speaking directly to people’s hearts, respecting their culture and engaging them in language that they would trust.
Jon Favreau: From the many years of polling I’ve seen on this issue, it’s clear that an immigration message that speaks to culture and tradition, whether it’s religious or secular, is an effective one. It’s one of the reasons that a majority of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be ripped away from their families and deported. It’s why most people believe that immigrants who work hard, pay taxes and follow the law, should be given the chance to become citizens. It’s why upwards of 80% of Americans believe that the Dreamers should get the chance to stay here and not be deported. But it’s also clear that the right message isn’t enough, unless we have clear policy positions that lend our message credibility. Again, David Frum:
David Frum: The big mistake Democrats make on immigration is they’re conceding the initiative to President Trump. He pushes, you react. He says something, you believe the opposite thing. You don’t develop your immigration policy indigenously based on your own dynamics, but reactively.
Cecilia Munoz: My deep worry about the movement that I come from, the immigrant reform, immigration rights movement, is that we’ve managed to position ourselves where it’s all about muscling the Democrats into being essentially for every immigrant all the time. And we don’t like talking about enforcement, so we’re going to make sure that the Democrats are uncomfortable with enforcement, too. And then we leave them with no way to govern, and no way to explain to the rest of America how they intend to fix the system.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: We need to undo the 1994 immigration bill that criminalizes people, our undocumented status and that has barred people like my dad from ever returning to this country.
Jon Favreau: Again, Greisa Martinez Rosas of United We Stand.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: The second thing is we need to ensure that we are increasing oversight and accountability over the Department of Homeland Security, who has slowly become the largest police force in this country, and that is responsible for the deportation and the detention of people. And that right now is being used by Donald Trump as a political force to extract political dissenters from their homes.
Jon Favreau: One way to ensure this accountability and reign in this police force, would be by reorganizing, defunding, or straight up abolishing ICA, a step that was first proposed by Shawn McElwee, who you’ve heard on this podcast. And one that has since been embraced by many other activists and Democrats, including a small but growing list of candidates and members of Congress.
Greisa Martinez Rosas: And then the third is we need protection for 11 million undocumented people that does not harm other people. The consequences of inaction aren’t just about, you know: oh, we’ll try again next time. Or: this is just like not a convenient political issue for me in this cycle. This is about our lives. This is about the grandmothers that will not be able to see their grandchildren grow. It’s about the people like my mom who passed away this last November and she died undocumented in this country, not ever knowing what it was like to feel like she belonged in the country that she gave so much to. If there was ever a time for Democrats from the blue states to the red states to be very clear in contrasting themselves from this administration, this is it.
Cecilia Munoz: Democrats should position themselves as the people who can fix the problem. We can have an immigration system that provides for our national security. The one we have right now is not it. It’s broken. So you can be pro-security, pro-jobs for Americans, pro all of the things you need to be, and be for immigration reform, because immigration reform is part of how you accomplish that. But you have to be willing to lean into the argument. The problem is that a lot of our Democrats absolutely panic over this stuff. They’re not comfortable with it and they’re not willing to get comfortable with it. And that’s why we got clobbered over the shutdown.
[clip of Mitch McConnell] What we’ve just witnessed on the floor was a cynical decision by Senate Democrats to shove aside millions of Americans for the sake of irresponsible political games.
[voice clip] It is a shakedown strategy that Senate Democrats have been talked into by their base.
[voice clip] They’ve chosen illegal immigrants. They’ve chosen DACA over our military.
[voice clip] All of this, all of this is completely unnecessary. Stop holding our troops and children’s health insurance hostage.
[clip of Mitch McConnell] A government shutdown was 100% avoidable.
Jon Favreau: For me, the shutdown over the Dreamers was a real window into the challenge Democrats face on immigration. Every Senate Democrat and a decent number of Senate Republicans genuinely wanted to protect the Dreamers, and Republicans needed Democratic votes to keep the government open. So my feeling was: why wouldn’t Democrats say to Republicans we’ll vote to keep the government open, as long as you vote to protect the Dreamers? And on Pod Save America, we joined the immigrants’ rights groups in pushing every Senate Democrat to do that, and most of them did. The problem was Republicans called their bluff. They bet that if the government shut down because Democrats wanted to protect undocumented immigrants, even if they were Dreamers, then red state Democrats who are up for reelection in 2018 would panic. And Republicans were right, those Democrats panicked. They worried that voters would buy the Republican argument that Democrats put undocumented immigrants before American taxpayers. Those Democrats may have been right, but my view is we’ll never know because they didn’t put up a real fight. They didn’t make an argument that it’s wrong to fund a government that will expel talented young immigrants from the only home they’ve ever known. That it’s wrong to fund the deportations of students who are studying hard, working hard, and acting like model American citizens in every possible way. That’s an argument that I’m confident the 60% of voters in the middle would find compelling. But you can’t win an argument that you don’t bother to make. And I think Democrats have to be willing to make the argument on immigration. It should be an argument that appeals to as many people as possible. It should be an argument that leaves room for compromise and practical solution. But we shouldn’t be afraid of making it. Democrats may decide it’s better politics to ignore the issue of immigration, but what we’re seeing right now is that Donald Trump and the Republicans won’t. No matter what, they’ll keep creating these crazies on the border. No matter what, they’ll run the scary ads about immigrant gangs coming to terrorize your community. And Democrats should have a good answer. And we should be confident that if we actually join the fight on this issue, ultimately we’ll win.
Jon Favreau: So you used to keep a letter from Ted Kennedy at the White House that he gave you after that immigration fight played out.
Cecilia Munoz: I didn’t know you knew that. Yeah, it was up in my office. It’s up in my current office too. It’s one of my treasures.
Jon Favreau: Tell me, tell us the story about that letter.
Cecilia Munoz: So I’m not sure I can do this without crying. I’ll do my best. So Ted Kennedy was actually the author of the 1965 Act. He was the main guy for every immigration bill from the time he got to the U.S. Senate, 1962. So he was our champion. He used to cut deals with Republicans. That was his thing. He was a legislator. So he was the guy who could figure out where the deal space was and figure it out. Right? So we passed a bill in 2006. We decide not to go to conference with the House. In December 2006, he called two of us, I was one, and my colleague Frank Sharry at another organization was the other person he called and he said: I think we should go to conference because I think this is our moment, and we might have to give up the pathway to citizenship and live to fight another day, but I think we can get to a product that protects people. And both Frank and I said to him: we can’t sell it to our constituencies, we can’t do it. And I’m haunted by that. Because we expected to do better in 2007 and of course the bottom fell out in 2007 and the bill failed in the Senate. So the day the bill failed, we were in tears. I was with a group of day laborers who had been lobbying the Senate. Ted Kennedy invited us all to a bar, fed us lobster rolls and alcohol and, you know, joyfully raised a toast to the fight. That was when I really understood in a deep way: look at this man’s career, right? He’d had victories and defeats, but he was telling us, one) that to dust ourselves off and keep at it and 2) to remember to take joy in the fight, that this is joyful work. And then a couple of weeks later, out of the blue, I get this letter in the mail. You know, Ted Kennedy was a sailor. He loved to sail. And he quotes John Adams, he talks about setting a true course, he thanked me for the role that I played and says: you know, we will get there. And I framed it and my plan was to take that letter with me to the signing ceremony when Barack Obama signed an immigration reform bill. That was the plan in my head, and it’s going to be a bit of a wait. And Barack Obama isn’t going to be the guy to sign that bill.
Jon Favreau: Someday. Somebody will get there.
Cecilia Munoz: Yeah.
Jon Favreau: The Wilderness is written and directed by me, Jon Favreau of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Zach Akers and Skip Bronkie of Two Up, and Ruth Lichtman. Tanya’s Somanader of Crooked Media is our co-producer. Andrea B. Scott is our editor, and David Fox is our assistant editor. Our archival producer is Rebecca Kent, and our archival researcher is Gianna Jefferson. Music by Marty Fowler. Sound design and mixing by Joel Robbie. Tracy Lien is our lead interviewee researcher. Additional writing from Zach Akers and Andrea B. Scott. John Maynard and Dan Kelly were our recording engineers. Fact checking by Anna Altman. Promo segment editing from Allison Grasso. Agency services from Ben Davis at WME. Legal services from Dean Bahat at Ziffren Brittenham and Chad Russo at Ramo Law. Clearance counsel is Kathryn Alimohammedi from Donaldson + Califf. Thanks for listening.