vision 2020

Trump’s Border Rhetoric Is Overblown, But Democrats Still Need a Solution

Even if there’s no “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border, there’s definitely a serious problem with migrants. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Overall, Democrats have reason to consider themselves well-positioned on most aspects of Donald Trump’s signature issue of immigration. Trump’s border-wall project remains unpopular. So, too, are his demands for significantly reduced levels of legal immigration. And the overall immigration policy position, which was once bipartisan but has now largely been abandoned by Republicans, of swapping a path to citizenship for the undocumented for a generally more competent enforcement regime remains the popular consensus. The fact that Trump seems to care only about satisfying his minority-of-the-electorate “base” on this set of issues creates even more “space” for Democrats.

But there is one subtopic where most Democrats have largely been silent (or simply critical of Trump, particularly for his administration’s treatment of minors separated from their families) and may be divided: the surge of migrants, mostly from violence-plagued Central American countries, appearing at the U.S.-Mexico border. Yes, Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric about the problem is vastly overblown. But he’s not making up the problem itself. And Democrats who might otherwise support steps toward stronger enforcement of the rules governing asylum requests (e.g., more time to hold migrants while processing their petitions) don’t want to look like they are emboldening the administration’s inhumane treatment of migrants, and are vulnerable to angry criticism from other Democrats who believe immigration enforcement needs to be generally relaxed.

Virtually all Democrats agree that Trump’s strategy of slashing foreign aid to the very Central American countries whose poverty and violence is feeding the migration surge is a terrible idea. But presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is himself from the border community of El Paso, wants to go in the opposite direction. Peter Beinart thinks other Democrats should follow:

Beto O’Rourke isn’t known for his wonkish heft. But in his formal announcement for president on Sunday, the former Texas congressman offered one of the most important policy proposals of the nascent presidential campaign: He argued that to solve America’s problems at the border, America’s leaders must “help people in Central America where they are.” In so doing, he began laying a foundation to effectively rebut Donald Trump on his signature issue: immigration …

Trump wants Americans to view Central American asylum seekers as marauding invaders, heading north to fleece America’s welfare system and rape and murder its people. By focusing on the actual conditions in Central America, O’Rourke can tell a different story: Central Americans aren’t migrating to commit violence but to flee it. Thus, Trump’s recent call to cut off American aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala as punishment for migration is epically stupid. It’s stupid because aid is America’s best tool for reducing the violence that leads Central Americans to migrate in the first place. By linking immigration to foreign policy, O’Rourke can do what his competitors can’t: credibly promise to treat asylum seekers more justly while also reducing their numbers.

But wait a minute: Don’t Americans hate foreign aid, particularly in the
Trump era when the president is constantly warning that the whole world wants to take advantage of Uncle Sucker? Is Beto proposing to get Democrats out of one Trump “trap” only to succumb to another?

Maybe or maybe not. There’s a well-founded belief that Americans think their country spends too much money on foreign aid, but it’s closely associated with gross misperceptions about the percentage of the federal government devoted to such programs. On the other hand, and contrary to what you might think, Americans prefer humanitarian aid to assistance designed to further tangible national interests, as a 2017 Brookings Institution study found:

The U.S. is seen as having overextended itself in playing a hegemonic role in the world, a role that has served corporate interests and the wealthy, but that has not effectively served the middle class, which is largely footing the bill for it …

These perceptions exert downward pressures on foreign aid spending. However, this downward pressure is not on humanitarian forms of aid but rather foreign aid spending that is seen as linked to U.S. hegemonic aspirations …

An overwhelming 81 percent say they favor “food and medical assistance to people in needy countries” (Republicans 73 percent, Democrats 90 percent).

Arguments in favor of aid based on humanitarian considerations do well. Seven in 10 agree with the argument that “the United States should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need.”

So maybe O’Rourke is onto something, so long as the aid to Central America that he touts is focused on alleviating suffering, and not bribing untrustworthy regimes in the region into keeping their people at home.

This should, moreover, be a policy all Democrats and some Republicans can support, and it obviously creates a point of sharp contrast to what Trump is doing.

In any event, the Texan, who is often criticized for being a showy lightweight, has tossed something substantive and tangible in the mix that can help Democrats offer something other than bathos and embarrassed silence on the subject.

Dems Need a Better Border Solution Than Noting Trump’s Wrong