The Democratic presidential candidates have frequently cited their opposition to President Donald Trump's border wall and family separation policy as reasons why voters should oust him from office in 2020.
However, Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, worries that the current conversation surrounding immigration is too simplistic.
“I think the public are actually moving past that sound byte [of opposing the family separation policy], and they’re looking for solutions,” Noorani said on Tuesday during an interview with Boston Public Radio. “Voters who are moderates, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans [or] independents [are] looking for a more detailed, more nuanced explanation of how as a nation do we be a nation of laws and a nation of grace.”
Only one candidate, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, has released a plan for how he wants to reform the nation’s immigration system past ending the family separation policy and halting the construction of a border wall.
Otherwise, most candidates have offered vocal support for policies and ideas, but have hesitated to put forward concrete legislative proposals when it comes to immigration.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have all expressed support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but have been vague about how many recipients to include in the program. According to estimates, there are potentially 3.6 million eligible residents, but the program only covered 690,000 individuals until it was terminated. Determining a number somewhere in between has been a frequent point of contention in Congress.
Noorani believes part of the reason Democratic candidates have been hesitant to push for more concrete immigration reform is because voters in the 2018 midterm elections were so galvanized by Trump’s immigration policies that Democrats see no reason to change their strategy in 2020.
“The child separation crisis of last summer left such a searing impact, not just on the lives of these children and their families, but also the American electorate,” Noorani said. “So, the Democrats in 2018 thought, ‘Well, we don’t have to talk about immigration because [we] already have a position on it based on what Trump did to families.'”
Noorani said it would be a strategic mistake for Democrats to continue to campaign solely on opposition to the family separation policy. He says that in his own experience, voters across the nation have expressed an interest in having a more nuanced conversation about immigration.
The reason Democrats are hesitant to wade into the immigration debate may lie in polling data on various immigration issues. A Jan. 2019 Pew Research poll showed that 60 percent of Americans believed immigrants “strengthen” society, but a Gallup poll conducted in the same month also found that 75 percent of Americans were in favor of hiring more border patrol agents.
One solution Noorani says could help create a more robust conversation around immigration is to alter the conversations the media has about the issue. He said the kinds of questions reporters frequently asked candidates when it comes to immigration tend to be “too simplistic,” and often focus on flashpoint issues like the border wall and family separation. If reporters changed their own dialogue about immigration, he said, it could help create a more complex conversation on the campaign trail.
“Our theory is: If reporters are asking a more nuanced set of questions, then we’re going to get a more nuanced set of solutions,” Noorani said.