Opinion

Will anyone broaden the immigration debate in 2020?

Bernie Sanders might not support open borders — but one 2020 Democrat should

Bernie Sanders does not support open borders.

This should not be surprising, as the independent senator from Vermont is hardly coy on this subject. He was particularly blunt in a 2015 conversation with Vox, insisting his democratic socialism does not entail advocacy of the "right-wing" "Koch brothers proposal," which Sanders argued would "make everybody in America poorer" and "[do] away with the concept of a nation-state."

Still, back on the campaign trail in Iowa on Sunday, Sanders again had to ward off the assumption that he's an open borders advocate. "I'm afraid you may be getting your information wrong. I think what we need is comprehensive immigration reform," he said, adding that though "there's a lot of poverty in this world," letting poor immigrants come to America en masse is not "something that we can do at this point."

Like most 2020 Democrats — the exhaustively detailed Andrew Yang aside — Sanders has yet to post a position statement on immigration (his Senate website also doesn't include immigration among "Bernie's Priorities"). But his Iowa comments are probably a representative ghost of immigration statements future: a dual rejection of both the Trump administration's cruelest tactics and any truly significant liberalization of our immigration policies. And that's a shame, because serious 2020 contenders advocating something substantially different from the standard "comprehensive immigration reform" grab-bag would do our country a service.

As it is, the immigration debate among prominent Democratic candidates is looking pretty narrow. Some positions are nearly a universal given: Stop family separations. Stop putting kids in cages. Make Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permanent, possibly through passage of the DREAM Act or something like it. Offer some sort of path to residency or citizenship for many immigrants already in the country illegally.

Beyond those, we can anticipate a fairly limited range of tweaks to the current system on the spectrum between, say, the labor nationalism of Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the "country of immigrants" idealism of former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas). The median seems to be about where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) lands with a call to "protect American workers in a global economy" while we "keep families together, create a pathway to citizenship, and enact comprehensive immigration reform."

Democrats seeking to peel away the sort of voter who backed former President Barack Obama in 2012 and President Trump in 2016 will lean more on the protecting U.S. workers side of things; those aiming to capture their party's left wing will focus more on immigrants' rights — especially widely popular rights (like DACA) for more sympathetic subsets of the immigrant population (like DREAMers and kids).

This approach isn't unreasonable, and it obviously boasts a good deal of strategic wisdom. Polling suggests Americans tend to favor DACA, skills-based admission, and a restricted path to citizenship while tending to oppose increased immigration rates, family-based admission, and mass deportation. The median position will be satisfactory for many voters, and the result will be immigration policy that is updated yet not terribly different from that of recent non-Trump presidencies.

But "satisfactory" is not the same as "good."

A strong campaign strategy has election as its primary goal — enacting humane and effective immigration policy is in this sense necessarily secondary. I say that not to impugn any of these candidates' sincerity about their immigration proposals but as a simple reflection of reality: What works on the campaign trail is not identical to what fosters a fruitful, creative debate that could produce a legitimately new and good immigration policy.

It's understandable that no viable contender wants to run an educational campaign where winning takes a back seat to raising policy awareness. Still, 2020 Democrats (plus any GOP challengers or high-profile independents) would perform a public service if they successfully broadened the immigration debate.

For as contentious as this topic is, our division is confined to a relatively small Overton Window, with most disagreement concerning enforcement technique (e.g. how and for how long should we detain migrant families?) rather than larger philosophical questions (like whether there is a right to live where you please, or whether open borders really "[do] away with the concept of a nation-state").

With his wall obsession, emergency declaration, and border closure proposal, Trump is doing his damnedest to open the window wider for restrictionist approaches. Insofar as he succeeds, even the median position will become less politically plausible unless a serious, national figure opens the window in the other direction, too. Useful proposals could come in many forms, though a practical plan for open borders (or something close to it) might be the most obvious option. Some of this could be as simple as developing a clever rebranding for old ideas suffering from negative associations and the fatigue of past debates.

A credible 2020 candidate would be an excellent window-opener, so as position statements are released, I will be on a hopeful lookout for something — anything — comparatively far from the median stance. It won't come from Sanders, certainly, but this is a big field. Maybe someone else will do us this kindness.

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