Opinion

Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Democrats need to expand immigration advocacy beyond the Dreamers

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07: Immigration activists take part in a National Day of Action for a Dream Act Now protest on February 7, 2018 in Washington D.C. A coalition of activists came from across the U.S. to demonstrate for a "Clean Dream Act" to be passed in Congress as part of spending negotiations. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
John Moore/Getty Images
Immigration activists protested on Feb. 7 in Washington, D.C.

Apparently, Donald Trump cares for Dreamers about as much as he does, say, Melania.

Dreamers — young people brought here as children — are an innocent subset of our 11 million undocumented immigrants. According to a Fox News poll, 79 percent of Americans — and 63 percent of Trump voters — favor giving them a path to citizenship. So, Trump claims, does he.

“I love these kids,” he assured us. Really? If Trump desired, he could protect them with the stroke of a pen.

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Instead, he abrogated President Obama’s protections for Dreamers so he could dangle them as bait in a cynical game of legislative chicken. The price? His border wall and an end of programs that encourage immigration from underrepresented countries and allow legal immigrants to bring family members to America. “We have a great chance to make a deal,” he tweeted, “or blame the Dems.”

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Lest we become too accustomed to our leader’s empathic and linguistic bankruptcy, let’s dissect his “extremely generous” proposal. In a parody of compromise, he is offering to trade a humanitarian measure that a majority of the country wants in exchange for restrictions on immigration that he wants but Democrats don’t. Dreamers are pawns in his amoral quest for dominance.

That places Democrats in a political and moral vise. Because what Trump really wants here is to make America whiter.

Trump’s proposed restrictions on immigration disproportionally target nonwhite immigrants and countries, cutting legal immigration by roughly 50 percent. Combined with turning his back on those fleeing misery and oppression, this serves Trump’s perceived self-interest. Palpably, he seeks to satiate white voters he attracted in 2016 by attacking nonwhite immigrants and refugees.

No doubt Trump’s own racial animus is deep and real. In far too many statements, he has maligned minorities in terms befitting a provincial bigot from 1950s America. But Trump clearly believes that he profits politically by ensnaring Democrats in a racialized debate.

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With reason. In the last decade, the dialogue between Republicans and Democrats about immigration has become far more polarized. This reflects that our contemporary immigrants are mostly nonwhite, which, inevitably, is altering our racial composition. Among many white Americans, anxiety follows — as did Trump’s presidency. Little wonder that his State of the Union addressed immigration in terms of crime, gangs, terrorism, and drugs, statistical reality be damned.

This underscores the ugliness of our racial moment. True, over time our demographic trends favor more inclusive candidates. But the visceral salience of racial antagonism stirs white voters to turn out. By comparison, those with broader attitudes — including the majority who favor Dreamers — are less likely to prioritize immigration over issues closer to home.

So Democrats study the electoral map and wonder. Many, including progressives, believe that to take control of Congress, Democrats need independents and white working-class voters, and therefore must move immigration off center stage, even if it means swallowing Trump’s deal in exchange for legalizing dreamers.

But nothing in this morass is clear. The party’s progressive base is restive. Incumbent Democrats in contested primaries could suffer if they failed to protect Dreamers or, conversely, if they acquiesced in restricting immigration. Democrats have contributed to their own weakness by failing to acknowledge that illegal immigration is, well, illegal. In doing so, they have failed to make the broader case for the legal immigration that has always enriched our country.

What, then, is supportable — politically and morally?

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The best answer, it seems, is a bipartisan bill proposed by Senators John McCain and Christopher Coons, although Trump has called it a non-starter. It pairs legalization for Dreamers with stricter border enforcement. Embracing this legislation leaves room for a bargain which, if necessary, would give Trump some semblance of a wall.

By offering such a deal, Democrats can argue that they’ve given Trump two wishes: legalization for Dreamers and beefed-up border security, which could include funding for his wall. And if he doesn’t support the bill, Democrats can invert his cynical mantra: You turned down your own wall, they can say, in order to deep-six Dreamers.

Would he? That’s the hell of such a calculus. Because, Trump notwithstanding, Dreamers are not pawns. Yet the failure to make Trump choose — between enhanced border security and a fix for Dreamers, or demanding his entire wish list — may come with a price tag of its own. So, with whatever trepidation, Democrats must compel congressional Republicans — and Trump — to decide whether to accept a formula like McCain-Coons as an exit ramp from the toxic debate over Dreamers.

That’s because Democrats need time to make the larger case for immigration: that it enriches us economically and spiritually; that, over time, it benefits our public finances; that, in general, immigrants don’t steal jobs. And that countries that do not reinvigorate themselves — as America always has — wither.

Very few of us, of whatever ethnicity, had ancestors on the Mayflower.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.