Opinion

Democrats were oblivious about immigration during the Obama years. Now they're enraged — and hopefully sorry.

Democrats' hypocrisy on immigration is important to point out, but also the start of a new political coalition

America has been transfixed by President Trump's grotesquely evil policy of wrenching apart the families of asylum seekers at the border — literally snatching children away from their parents for the crime of trying to escape from murderous drug cartels or violent political instability. Documents obtained by MSNBC's Chris Hayes reveal that 91 percent of families having their children stolen are only "guilty" of the misdemeanor of first-time border crossing.

One mark of how vile this policy is can been seen in the behavior of Trump himself, who has consistently been trying to falsely blame Democrats for his own policy. (He can generally sense when something is playing extremely poorly in the news.) Of course, that runs headlong into alternative conservative explanations that the separation policy is a.) not happening and b.) it's actually fine that it's happening.

But Trump's foul dishonesty gains a certain surface plausibility due to the fact that the recent liberal record on immigration is really bad. Liberals will have to reckon with their own abysmal failures if they're serious about creating a pro-immigration rights coalition to take back power and fix this mess.

As a matter of historical record, Barack Obama's record on immigration was profoundly wretched, especially in his first term (but not entirely). As part of his moronic strategy of trying to achieve bipartisan compromise by appeasing Republicans, he massively increased roundups and deportations of unauthorized immigrants already in the country (to be fair, border apprehensions were much lower than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, though that is mostly due to a sharp decline in immigration flows from Mexico during the recession). It didn't work, of course; conservatives were unalterably convinced that Obama was an immigration lover no matter what he did. By 2013 his administration was slowing deportations, leading to the DACA policy of quasi-legal status for unauthorized immigrants who had been brought here as children.

The broad American left (myself included) was not properly concerned with Obama's mass deportations when they were at their worst from about 2009-12. While many activists were shouting themselves hoarse over the practice, most traditional liberals figured that Obama was probably doing alright and didn't look too hard at the details. Hillary Clinton — as usual badly behind the curve in such matters — argued as late as 2015 that child migrants from Central America seeking asylum should be deported to "send a message" to their families.

As with economic policy, drone strikes, and health care, rank-and-file Democrats are only beginning to come to grips with the fact that their party's recent legacy is not nearly so successful or moral as it may have seemed at the time. As a result, liberals have sometimes confused Obama-era policies towards unauthorized immigrants (or pictures of the same) with those of Trump, providing no end of fuel for Trumpists' hypocrisy trolling and whataboutism.

Immigration rights activists dubbed Obama the "deporter in chief," and it's perhaps understandable that many among that group (and Latinos more broadly) are more than a little skeptical of the newly fervent pro-immigration sentiment among liberals. It feels like they are exploiting the issue to bash Trump and will forget all about it when Trump leaves office.

On the one hand, it is definitely important to understand where these policies come from, so that people understand how deep the problem goes. A sensible and humane immigration policy will mean far more than just reversing the particular actions from Trump. It will mean things like abolishing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (or better yet, the entire Department of Homeland Security), granting mass amnesty, and drastically streamlining the process of legal immigration.

But on the other hand, it is absolutely true that Trump's new policy represents a breathtaking new step in the immorality of U.S. immigration policy. Obama may have been coldly unconcerned with the fates of Central Americans simply looking for work or fleeing incomprehensible political violence (incidentally, largely caused by U.S. drug policy), or more concerned with his narcissistic vision of being a Bipartisan Unifier than with behaving morally, but he never put through a policy of vicious punishment of children simply to be loudly racist and cruel. This really is different, and considerably worse.

The immigrant rights community would thus probably be wise to offer newly enraged liberals a welcoming hand and some tempered instruction on how we got here. Most people — again including myself — should have been pressing harder on this for the last decade. But nobody is perfect, and nobody can possibly pay proper attention to every major problem in this apocalyptic mess of a country. This is a good opportunity for liberals to make amends for previous wrongdoing — and a way to cement Latino support by actually catering to their needs (and not cynically presuming that Republican racism will force them into the Democratic camp).

Ultimately, demonstrating partisan hypocrisy is much less important than building a political coalition that could actually implement decent immigration reform. Most Americans (66 percent, according to a recent poll) are not so brutal or racist that they can approve of innocent screaming children being ripped from the arms of their mothers and fathers. The vast deportation machine relies on inattention to conduct its evil business. It needs to become an article of faith among regular Democrats and independents that the whole operation should be shut down, and that process is well started.

America does not need an anti-immigrant gestapo.

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