The Democrats' Dangerous Immigration Game
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
The Democrats' Dangerous Immigration Game
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
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After most of the Democratic presidential candidates said they would support government health insurance plans covering undocumented immigrants, President Trump tweeted with glee: “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

Trump is correct that taxpayer-funded health insurance for the undocumented is not a popular position: In a recent CNN poll, 59% oppose the proposal. But Trump’s own handling of immigrants and asylum seekers is slightly more unpopular.

The same poll found 62% “disapprove of the way migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border are being treated by the U.S. government,” while 60% approve of “allowing refugees from central American countries to seek asylum in the United States.” A June 2018 poll similarly found that 67%  disapprove of Trump’s “policy toward immigrants who are detained at the U.S. border” and the resulting “significant increase in the number of young children who have been separated from their parents.”  Trump’s handling of immigration may be what’s “the end of that race.”

But as we can’t know which sentiment held by the majority will be the greater driver of votes, Democrats are taking a big risk, and not only by embracing health coverage for the undocumented. Pressed by underdog Julian Castro, at least 12 candidates are supporting the decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings, including top-tier candidates Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Former Vice President Joe Biden does not, and he also appeared in last Friday’s CNN interview to hedge on full health coverage for the undocumented, only stressing access to emergency care.) Declaring these positions is an honorable risk to take, but an unnecessary one.

The Democratic move left on immigration is driven by Trump’s polarization of the issue. Before Trump, most Democrats sought to balance their core pro-immigration beliefs with a nod toward law-and-order: promoting crackdowns on employers that hire undocumented workers and deportations of the undocumented who commit serious crimes. Now, Trump’s complete lack of humanity toward asylum seekers prompts Democrats to more strongly emphasize that those who seek entry to America are human, and deserve humane treatment. And if the undocumented are human, and not subhuman invaders, then policies should flow from that fundamental truth. Therefore, a human who has crossed the border for legitimate reasons should not be branded a criminal and denied health insurance.

I support the humane principle girding those positions. However, taking these unpopular stances is a classic case of leading with one’s chin. Giving access to health coverage to the undocumented appears to reward those who, under existing law, did commit a crime (albeit a misdemeanor). The decriminalization of border crossings conjures up images of a disorderly, unruly immigration process.

Positions that offer benefits and leniency toward the undocumented suggest an America that will always have a large undocumented population. But Democrats are unified around fixing the immigration system: creating a pathway for citizenship for the presently undocumented population, clearing the backlog of nearly 4 million visa applicants (which has grown under the Trump administration) and expanding the number of visas available.

When immigration reform was debated during the Obama presidency, such liberal reforms polled well. For example, a 2014 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 74% either “strongly” or “somewhat” favored a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented who paid fines and back taxes. And a 2013 ABC/Washington Post poll showed that 58% of registered voters supported more visas for high-skilled workers, while 52% opposed cutting the number of visas for family members of legal immigrants. Those numbers may not indicate overwhelming support, but they are far better than the numbers for providing health insurance for the undocumented.

More importantly, if a Democratic president succeeds in enacting comprehensive immigration reform, then the undocumented population would be greatly diminished and there would be little impetus to even discuss health coverage for the undocumented and the decriminalization of border crossings.

Democrats have no reason to take their eye off the prize of comprehensive immigration reform, only to barrel into hot-button debates on narrow side issues where they hold a weak hand. They may get away with it, because Trump’s actions on immigration have repulsed so many Americans. But it’s a risk Democrats did not have to take.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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