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Opinion | Charles Stein

Democrats need an immigration policy that blends compassion with pragmatism

A youth stood by the border fence that separates Mexico from the United States, near a makeshift memorial for migrants who have died during their journey toward the US, in Tijuana, Mexico. Emilio Espejel/AP/Associated Press

The Democratic Party has taken a wrong left turn on a number of key issues. At the top of the list is illegal immigration.

In their recent presidential debates and on the campaign trail, many candidates have come out in favor of decriminalizing illegal border crossings and providing health care to unauthorized immigrants. As a group, the presidential hopefuls deserve an “A” for compassion and an “F” for political savvy.

In the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump hammered away at the Democrats for being too soft on border security. He will do that again this time around, but the Democrats don’t need to make it so easy for him.


Instead they should craft a policy that recognizes that America is a country with a big heart but a finite appetite for letting people come here. The policy should be based on an understanding that many Americans, not all of them racists, are uncomfortable with high levels of immigration, especially the kind of spikes we have witnessed in border crossings in the past few months.

The specifics of immigration policy, like the specifics of health care, are numbingly complicated. But the basic principles that should underlie that policy aren’t. We need to appreciate that:

The first world can’t solve the developing world’s problems through immigration.

In parts of Central America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, millions of people live with extreme poverty, threats of violence, and repressive governments. Climate change isn’t helping. If we could poll those people, what percentage of them would say they want to move to the United States, Canada, Europe, or Australia? Half? Three-quarters? Let’s agree it would be a big number. Let’s also agree it would be more than any of the rich countries could accommodate. Germany’s Angela Merkel accepted more than a million refugees in 2015-2016, many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Voter anger over the immigration surge has hurt Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union at the polls and explains, in part, why she is on her way out.


Setting immigration limits makes you a realist, not a racist.

The United States has long had limits on the number of legal immigrants it will take. There is no limit on asylum seekers — the path chosen by most of those leaving Central America — but there should be. As David Frum argued in an April article in The Atlantic, the distinction between those escaping persecution versus those fleeing poverty is not always such an easy one to make. The headline of Frum’s piece should give Democrats pause: “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.”

We need carrots as well as sticks.

Angered by the flood of migrants, Trump threatened to slap tariffs on Mexico and cut aid to Central America. Democrats should do the opposite. Why not take the $5 billion Trump wants for his ill-conceived border wall and reallocate it to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico? The money could be used for economic aid, beefed up police forces, and border security. Central America’s profound problems — gang violence, crop failures, and a lack of opportunity — won’t be solved by money alone, but the aid would help. It would also be in the best tradition of American foreign policy — a mix of altruism and self-interest.


The carrots the Democrats are proposing — decriminalizing border crossings and offering health insurance to illegal immigrants — are wrong-headed. Both would send a signal to potential migrants that the United States is rolling out the welcome mat. People respond to incentives, no matter where they live or what language they speak.

Focus on policies that have broad public support.

President Obama extended protection for Dreamers, those who came to the United States illegally as children. The program remains popular because it appeals to Americans’ basic sense of fairness. Democrats can push for permanent protection for the Dreamers, drawing a bright line between their policies and Trump’s. Down the road it may be possible to find a path to citizenship for all current unauthorized immigrants, but in the current climate, that doesn’t look realistic.

In May, about 144,000 people were taken into custody along the US southern border. That is more than the population of Hartford, Conn. (In June, the total fell to 104,000.) The number is way too high, and steps need to be taken to bring it down. Democrats need to acknowledge that and show they are serious about getting the situation under control. Pointing out the cruelties of the Trump administration and building bigger, better facilities for migrant children isn’t enough.

If the Democrats don’t come up with something credible, they will cede the border security issue to Trump. His policies may or may not reduce the flow of migrants. But it is a good bet they will reduce the Democrats’ chances of retaking the White House.

Charles Stein, a former member of the Globe staff, is a freelance writer.