Immigration is a hot, contentious, emotional issue. President Trump warns of caravans full of criminals who are riddled with diseases. We feel helpless, seeing children separated from their parents at the Mexican border. After several false starts, Congress has yet to figure out whether to pay for a wall. And, the “Dreamers” (immigrants who were brought to the United States as children) still sit in fear, waiting to learn of their status.
As a nation, we have come to realize that this is an important problem to solve. When I first began discussing immigration with voters, in December 2016, only Trump’s base rated it as a critical issue. Two years later, Democrats are paying much more attention, and they now rate its importance at 8 on a 10-point scale.
The conundrum: Although voters long for a comprehensive immigration policy, the dysfunction in Washington makes this goal virtually unattainable. Even more, the narrative about immigration — generated by politicians who benefit from demonizing the other side — has unnecessarily divided us.
When I ask Americans how they feel about the current state of affairs, the top three words they use are “sad,” “angry,” and “embarrassed” — and they characterize the other political party’s position as extreme and bullheaded. Republicans imagine that most Democrats demand fully open borders as the ultimate symbol of a truly compassionate society. Democrats will tell you that Republicans want our borders completely closed — because Republicans reject the notion that immigration is fundamental to our culture, economy, and values.
As I have discovered in the past with a range of issues, most Americans don’t have such extreme views, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.
“I am so sick of people saying that I am opposed to immigrants,” Colette, a Republican from Massachusetts, told me. “That’s an ignorant statement and unfair. America is great because of our melting pot. I just don’t think people should be let in without the correct paperwork.” Fernando, from New Jersey, added, “I am an immigrant who came to the US from Cuba with my parents, and I know how tricky this issue is. And I reluctantly voted for Trump because I feel that it is unfair for people to come into the country illegally when other families are playing it fair and waiting for their turn.”
Ken, a New York Democrat, admitted, “I am worried when my fellow Democrats talk about abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.). It sounds like they want open borders. It was never the party’s policy and it is way too extreme.” Added Catherine, from Texas, “It is a vicious Trump talking point to suggest Democrats want no restrictions on immigration — but we do have laws and they should be enforced with a modicum of respect and compassion for the people seeking the same American Dream that most of our ancestors sought.”
Voters from all ends of the political spectrum talk about their own families’ immigration stories, and most understand the value of bringing new citizens to our country who want to work hard and build a better life. The majority support legal immigration, stronger border security, and a path to citizenship for Dreamers who have a clean criminal record and a commitment to paying taxes and learning English.
Americans are divided about a border wall, but they are willing to compromise: Most Democrats I talked to are willing to build a wall as part of a more comprehensive immigration plan that keeps Dreamers in the United States. And most Republicans I talked to agree with Joseph from Texas: “Security is part of our lives: I’d never just let anyone walk into my home without an invite, I’d never shower with the curtain open, I always lock my car, and we can’t enter office buildings without identification. Walls are everywhere.” He adds, “You don’t like a wall? If anyone has a better idea to secure our border, I am listening.”
My overall impression is that voters on both sides are ready for a deal. So, why not just go back to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011, or CIRA, created by the then-bipartisan group of legislators who called themselves the “Gang of Eight,” or push harder for the Border Security and Immigration Reform bill of 2018? And why do we think that we are much more divided than we actually are?
Because, as hundreds of voters told me, Congress and the president are simply unwilling to compromise. The issue is more valuable to them as a talking point and an attack strategy than as a problem to solve. Said Phil, a Republican from Idaho, “Why take immigration off the table when it gives our political leaders great face time on TV?” Added Jeremy, a Democrat from Maine, “My theory is that it’s immature, divisive, small, and petty political leaders who are just afraid to take a stand and lose their primaries.”
Dozens of voters related stories of politicians whose dominant campaign strategies were to exaggerate the viewpoints of the other party — and so it’s no wonder that we think our country is so divided.
“In my Arizona district, both candidates raised millions yelling about immigration policy,’’ said Anne. “I mean, why would you want to fix the issue when there is so much political and financial benefit to keeping it unresolved?” Bernadette, an Independent from Kentucky, told me that she and her friends planned to vote for Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot, for Congress, until McGrath’s opponent, Representative Andy Barr, created an attack ad criticizing McGrath’s “dangerous agenda, which would open our borders and enable drug cartels to flood our towns with heroin and fentanyl.” Leveraging this misinformation, Barr was able to convince voters like Bernadette, and he won. And people from the Sixth District in Kentucky learned a narrative about the other party that was not true.
Voters are ready for compromise, but they feel that the politicians who represent them are too afraid to occupy the no-man’s-land where actual solutions exist. And so far, they’re right. Every step toward compromise seems to generate searing reprisals from cable news, inflames more extreme primary opponents, and burns those who reach across the aisle. It’s December 2018, and the courage and candor of our leaders — especially on critical issues like immigration — is at an all-time low.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.