Updated Feb 1, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Why Democrats have moved left on immigration

Of all the proposals from President Trump's State of the Union address, the only one to prompt jeers from Democrats was what he called his "fair compromise" on immigration — the issue that has divided Washington more than any other during in his presidency.

The bottom line: Democrats are embracing immigration more than ever before. The percentage of Americans dissatisfied with current immigration levels has jumped to 50% after a record low of 34% last year, per a new Gallup poll. That change isn't because Democrats want less immigration, though. It's because many want more.

Data: Gallup; Chart: Axios Visuals

The details: Only 25% of those dissatisfied Dems want to decrease current immigration levels — a huge plunge from 50% from just two years ago. During that same time period, the number of dissatisfied Democrats who think immigration levels should be increased has jumped from 10% to 39%.

Times have changed...

The following excerpt may look like a Stephen Miller-authored directive for the Trump administration, but it's actually from the Democratic Party's 1996 platform for President Bill Clinton's reelection campaign:

[Before this administration], our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.

That attitude persisted among the most-respected liberal thinkers until fairly recently. Some statements from Democratic luminaries from past years are anathema to the party's current rhetoric:

  • Paul Krugman in a 2006 column: "I wish the economic research on immigration were more favorable than it is." The reasons he cited: "the benefits of immigration to the population already here are small" and "immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants."
  • Then-Sen. Barack Obama in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope: "When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I'm forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration."


Obama's landslide victory 2008 solidified the status of minority voters — especially Latinos — as part of the core Democratic coalition.

  • The decision to enact DACA in 2012 put a face on illegal immigration for many Americans, per Vox: "Within the immigration-reform debate, DREAMers aren’t an interest group fighting for their own small piece of a much bigger discussion. They’ve functioned as an activist vanguard."
  • The failure of comprehensive immigration reform in the House in 2013 inflamed sentiments on the issue and left the Democratic base distrustful of working with the GOP for a solution.
  • Donald Trump's candidacy and his campaign's — and later, administration's— hardline rhetoric on immigration allowed the left to coalesce around an immigration platform centered on inclusion and a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Sign of the times...

  • The Democratic platform for Hillary Clinton's run in 2016 didn't use the word "illegal" once within the context of immigration — in stark contrast to the language used for her husband's.

The takeaway: While the Democratic base was steadily trending leftward on immigration throughout the Obama era, the Trump administration's controversial policies of travel bans and border walls have kicked the polarization on the issue into hyperdrive.

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