Democrats Can’t Cede the Issue of Immigration to Trump

As the Democratic presidential primary captures the attention of the political world, Donald Trump is carpet-bombing 2020 voters with digital ads to try and weaponize the issue of immigration in a repeat of his xenophobic – and successful – 2016 strategy. And in his State Of the Union speech and rallies over the last two weeks, he once again is all-in on his divisive attacks and rhetoric that offer no solutions.

Democrats must respond — and not just to Hispanic and Latino voters. Silence isn’t an option because it cedes the issue to Trump. We need to both rebut his lies about immigrants and explain our vision for immigration that the public supports over Trump’s divisive and hate filled rhetoric.

As we saw in the 2018 midterm elections, the Republicans’ late “caravan” strategy failed to produce a repeat result for Trump. It also demonstrated that Democrats can neutralize these attacks – and turn immigration a winning issue – if they can articulate their vision of a functional system that contrasts with Trump’s cruel and chaotic policymaking.

It is critical, therefore, that Trump is not the only voice on immigration in 2020. But right now he is dominating social media and list-building with videos and ads on the wall, sanctuary cities and “criminal aliens”.  According to Bully Pulpit Interactive tracking, in the last ten months, the Trump campaign spent over $3.2 million dollars on immigration ads on Facebook alone. More than every other presidential candidate combined. Trump’s ad budget for divisive immigration ads last year represented almost 16% of his budget.

Trump’s strategy is clear. He is going to try and keep weaponizing immigration like he did in 2016 and throughout his presidency. His campaign is banking on the fact that they can both energize his base and appeal to swing voters – a strategy that could work if Democrats don’t respond effectively.

In polling conducted by Global Strategy Group for the Immigration Hub, we found that swing voters are susceptible to Trump’s messaging if heard in a vacuum. But when those same voters hear a contrasting vision – one that focuses on humane solutions to fix our broken immigration system – they side with the progressive viewpoint and reject Trump’s cruel approach.

Democrats don’t need to make immigration the centerpiece of their campaign. Speaking to voters about their economic and health care concerns will be critical, but they also can’t let Trump’s attacks go unanswered and risk having voters only hear one side of the story. If Democrats say nothing, Trump will fill in the blanks about what Democrats stand for on immigration. This is an especially concerning point given that our polling showed that only 34 percent of voters know “very well” what Democrats stand for on immigration, versus 46 percent about the Republicans.

Trump’s radical policies have made him vulnerable on issues like family separation (opposed by 75 percent of the public) and his hateful rhetoric that is grounded in creating chaos. Democrats have clear ways to effectively contrast Trump’s draconian ideas with humane immigration policies that our polling shows are supported by both Democratic base voters and swing voters.

Instead of Trump trying to deport everyone, we should reduce wait times for legal immigration and create a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Instead of Trump separating families and putting children in cages, we should have a fair and efficient process for those seeking asylum and refugees. Instead of Trump’s sweeping enforcement, we need greater accountability at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

Trump and Republican vulnerability on immigration isn’t a theory. They aren’t invincible on the issue. In fact, we saw what happens when their gambits failed. During the 2018 midterms, Republicans spent millions of dollars on false attack ads on “caravans” and MS-13. It failed miserably. Democrats flipped 40 Republican House seats, including 21 Trump carried in 2016. And Trump immigration clones Lou Barletta, Kris Kobach, and Corey Stewart all lost soundly in statewide races.

While immigration was not as central in the handful of races in 2019, Republicans ran fear-mongering ads in a late act of desperation to shore up their base in the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial races as well the state legislative races in Virginia. These candidates also lost.

Despite these recent successes in defeating Republican immigration attacks, Trump is a unique messenger on the issue and he looms large in 2020. We know that his base will never leave him and that they are energized by his immigration hyperbole. But swing voters are up for grabs on this issue when they are presented with a choice.

The Democratic nominee will have a unique opportunity to present a compelling narrative of his or her humane immigration solutions that the American people support over Trump’s hateful rhetoric.

The broader progressive community must also take the fight to Trump – and his millions of dollars of digital ads. We need to ensure that Trump isn’t the only voice on this issue and that the public knows the truth about his hateful attacks and unpopular immigration policies.


Nick Gourevitch is the partner and managing director of Global Strategy Group. Tyler Moran is the executive director of the Immigration Hub and previously served as an adviser to former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama.

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