Pelosi’s Real Failure on Immigration

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The fight between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the “Squad” of young, female, non-white members of Congress exposes a huge problem for the immigration debate and for the country Neither Pelosi nor her young tormentors have a real plan—on policy or in narrative—on immigration.

In fact, while the hyper-progressives don’t realize it, they aren’t that far away from President Trump, or from President Obama for that matter, when it comes to immigration. Trump and Obama have both used reckless, rights-violating mass deportation as an immigration policy, and both presidents have reinforced the last 30 years of American immigration policy—which is about endless ramping up of border security and surveillance.

The Democrats don’t ever challenge that ramping up of border security and surveillance—even though it’s a costly and dangerous failure. The more we ramp up at the border, the more money we spend, and the more undocumented immigrants we create. At this point, every single migrant to this country can be made to seem undocumented because there are so many restrictions and administrative delays. The government has made all immigration illegal, and subject to its whims. 

This is big, intrusive government at its worst. And Republicans and conservatives would be opposing it—except they’ve lost their way and have embraced racist Trumpian nationalism, and all kinds of scary intrusive actions. The bigger problem is that this regime of rights-violating oppression is going beyond immigrants and beginning to target all Americans—starting with Americans related to immigrants, and anyone who might help such immigrants. Inevitably, we will all become targets of a lawless, reckless and rights-violating Department of Homeland Security.

It is precisely this narrative that Democrats—be they Pelosi-ites or moderates or AOC-style socialists—should be broadcasting and developing. Whatever principled Republicans are left should be saying the same things. But they are cowed by short-term politics, and perhaps by fear of what the American surveillance state may know about them.

They need to show some courage, flip the narrative against these tyrants using border security to add to their power, and then come up with solutions. 

I’d suggest start by arguing for the break-up of the Department of Homeland Security, as a dangerous threat to American liberty. And then I’d emphasize the re-establishment of an immigration system that provides due process for asylum seekers and migrants. When the haters and Trumpians cry “open borders,” the swift answer should be to remind people that those haters  would treat us all like those child migrants in their camps if they could get away with it.

Once the Trumpians are put on defense, the Democratic policy and the Democratic narrative must reclaim amnesty as a wise policy, precisely as President Reagan understood it. An amnesty program is the only way to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants—the 1986 amnesty led to a decline in illegal entries. This should be done  fairly and in the least disruptive way possible. Ask people to apply, and evaluate people for their ties to the country and their productivity. Provide status to those who are upstanding residents, so they may come out of the shadows and contribute more to society. Put those who don’t make the cut into removal proceedings that have due process.

The country desperately needs a way out of a conflict that threatens our freedom, our democracy and our unity. It’s time to offer that alternative and make that case—instead of ramping up border security or merely screaming about Trumpian cruelty. Shame on Pelosi and her progressive critics for fighting with each other instead of addressing the problem. 

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