Party Conventions Highlight Growing U.S. Divide on Immigration

A vast divide widens as Clinton tilts left toward a pro-immigration platform and Trump promises a crackdown and mass deportation.

On the first day of their convention, Democrats heard moving speeches from an 11-year-old American girl worried about her undocumented mother getting deported, a “Dreamer” brought to the country as a child without proper papers and U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez, a fiery voice for compassionate treatment of immigrants.

It was a sharp contrast to the Republican convention last week, when three speakers on opening night were American parents who told searing tales of their children who died because of people living in the country illegally. Their dark stories contained appeals for more border control to stop immigrants from pouring into the U.S.

The divergence reflected a widening national gulf on immigration, an issue that has taken center stage in the 2016 presidential election in a year marked by increasing political polarization and heightened racial tensions. 

Republican nominee Donald Trump built his coalition of supporters while vowing to build a wall on the Mexican border and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has leaned left toward a more pro-immigration platform as her party’s reliance on Hispanic voters grows. She will deliver the keynote speech to cap her nominating convention on Thursday evening.

“It surprises me, actually, that there’s been such a complete rejection and a complete inability to embrace the positive social and economic change that immigrants have done to build this country,” Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told Bloomberg Politics. “I don’t get where the Republicans think they’re going in the future as a party.”

Citizenship or Deportation?

Clinton has promised to introduce legislation in her first 100 days that would allow the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally to gain citizenship. She wants to support—and expand—President Barack Obama’s executive actions to give deportation relief and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants, even though the president’s order is currently blocked by an appeals court (a shorthanded Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on the legality of the program last month).

Fear of immigration has been a powerful undercurrent in the GOP for years, sinking legislative efforts in 2007 and 2013 to open up immigration laws. But Trump has capitalized on it in a way that no presidential candidate has for generations. According to a 2015 Pew survey, a majority of Republicans believe immigrants have a negative impact on U.S. society, while a majority of Democrats believe they make America better.

“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” Trump said in his convention speech last Thursday in Cleveland.

The real estate developer leapfrogged his Republican opponents in the primary while deriding undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and vowing to reduce future flows of legal immigration. His brash rhetoric and racially-tinged appeals struck a nerve with millions of older and blue-collar white voters who worry about the U.S. becoming less white and more Hispanic and Asian. The union representing U.S. border patrol agents issued its first-ever endorsement in a presidential primary for Trump.

“As Mr. Trump said, a government that doesn’t protect its own citizens is a government unworthy to lead,” Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser to Trump, said in an email. Victims of immigration, he said, “have not had a voice: they’ve been coldly silenced again at the Democratic convention.”

The Facts

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. fell from 12.2 million in 2007 to 11.3 million in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite high-profile murders, research shows that first-generation immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans or second-generation immigrants. The number of border patrol agents jumped from 10,000 in 2004 to 21,000 in 2012, according to the government. The number of Mexicans apprehended at the border fell to a near-historic low in 2015, before rising so far in 2016, according to preliminary figures.

“At the Republican convention, undocumented immigrants were depicted as the scary ‘other’ that are coming to kill ‘us.’ At the Democratic convention, undocumented immigrants speak up for themselves and demonstrate that they already are ‘us,'” said Frank Sharry, a pro-immigration activist. “In many ways, this election is a referendum on immigration reform—kick them out or let them stay.”

The share of the white vote shrunk from 88 percent in the 1980 election to 72 percent in 2012, and the results have been stark: Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of whites in 1980 en route to a landslide victory, while Mitt Romney won 59 percent of whites in 2012 and lost. Hispanics constitute 17 percent of the country’s population, according to a Census Bureau survey in 2014, and tend to play a pivotal role in swing states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

Romney’s loss in 2012 prompted the Republican National Committee to release a candid report four months later warning that the party faces extinction in future national elections unless it adopts pro-immigration positions. “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report concluded, echoing a growing consensus among Republican elites—but not voters—that the party must embrace immigration reform.

A Risky Strategy

Trump has uniquely poor ratings among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans, and his path to victory requires running up his margins among white nativist and working-class voters who perceive America’s decline. It is a narrow path that hinges on winning states in the Rust Belt, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that haven’t voted to put a Republican in the White House since the 1980s but have a disproportionate share of blue-collar whites.

“The difference between the party conventions on immigration is stark, but that’s mainly because the immigration debate for 50 years has focused almost exclusively on the immigrants rather than on impacted Americans, and the Democrats are simply continuing that practice,” said Mark Krikorian, an activist working to cut immigration to the U.S. He said “Donald Trump may never have happened” if politicians took immigration fears more seriously.

Democrats are determined to use Trump’s anti-immigration positions to turn Latino voters against the GOP in historic numbers come November. In his Wednesday prime-time speech, Obama delivered a searing indictment of Trump as “homegrown demagogue” preying on fear and prejudice, and said Clinton offers a more hopeful vision.

“Hillary knows we can insist on a lawful and orderly immigration system while still seeing striving students and their toiling parents as loving families—not criminals or rapists—families that came here for the same reasons our forebears came: to work, and study, and make a better life, in a place where we can talk and worship and love as we please,” he said. “She knows their dream is quintessentially American, and the American Dream is something no wall will ever contain.”