Immigration at the Southern Border
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Why this information is important

This section will help you understand where the differing views from the Left and the Right. Ultimately, that understanding will prepare you to field questions from students and approach their viewpoints from a place of empathy.

Narrative History

Politics is full of policy changes, and immigration is no different. While Republicans have historically emphasized strong border security and legal immigration, their rhetoric regarding undocumented immigrants has shifted significantly over the last 30 years. Similarly, Democrats used to be much more critical of undocumented immigrants than they are today.

In 1996, the Democratic platform stated, "The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again." This is a very different message compared to their 2020 platform, which called for a much greater level of humane treatment of immigrants and their families and, at least in part, vilified ICE agents and proponents of hard-line immigration policy.

NPR • Democrats Used To Talk About 'Criminal Immigrants,' So What Changed The Party? • February 19, 2019

In a 1980 debate, Ronald Reagan spoke about collaborating with Mexico in dealing with the immigration crisis, calling them "our neighbor to the south." During that same debate, when asked if children in the country illegally should be allowed to attend U.S. public schools, George H. W. Bush didn't hesitate. He said he does not want to see six or 8-year-olds being uneducated or "made to feel that they're living outside the law." Over 30 years later, and while he doesn't represent all conservatives, Donald Trump's remarks draw a stark contrast to H. W.'s. "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," or his campaign policy promise to make Mexico pay for the construction of a border wall.

For Democrats in the 80's and '90s, the growing immigrant population posed a problem for the party's labor priorities. However, near the turn of the century, things began to change. As the Democratic party became more diverse (+18% non-white since 1995), their messaging shifted to accepting their diverse constituency, transforming immigration from a security problem to a civil rights issue. Shifts in Republican messaging are designed to target voters as well. According to former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleisher, "I think the biggest change [from Bush to Trump] was that the economy weakened. People in America were worried about their jobs and their livelihood, and they did worry about a surge of people coming through illegally." Another prominent conservative, Mark Krikorian from the Center for Immigration Studies, said, "[In 2016, Donald Trump] took advantage of that gap between what the actual voters wanted and what the political class was offering." The 45th President's 'America First' agenda spoke to millions who felt that illegal immigrants were an added burden to the nation's economic well-being and that providing paths to citizenship would only encourage future illegal immigration.

Today, Democrats are more likely to view immigration as a human rights issue and Republicans as a safety and security issue. A poll from the Cato institute backs this up: 70% of Democrats say racist beliefs drive the desire for less immigration. In comparison, 88% of Republicans say a sincere interest in controlling the country's borders is the reason. Despite the partisan breakdown, 57% of all Americans ultimately believe that strict immigration belief results from wanting secure borders, not racism.

History is important, but what is happening right now is just as critical. Here are the predominant immigration narratives and supporting evidence from the Left and Right. Each narrative is written from the perspective of Civil writers on the Right (Republican) or Left (Democratic); they don't represent the views of Civil as a company.

Left Narrative

Narrative Foundations

1. America is a nation of immigrants; why should it deny other immigrants who happen to arrive later than others?

2. Forced immigration due to violence and economic turmoil is a human rights issue that America, as a world superpower, can help solve.

3. America's diversity is its strength.

4. It is not the immigrants' fault if America's legal system is broken and unable to process immigrants efficiently and equitably.

"The Left" refers to (and is interchangeable with) the Democratic Party: moderate Liberals and Progressives. While, in reality, the Left isn't a monolithic voting bloc, this topic guide views the Left as a middle-ground aggregate of Progressives and moderate Liberals.

If your news outlets lean Left...

You probably feel that immigration is a humanitarian issue, one that should (most of the time) take precedence over an antiquated legal immigration system that frequently fails to meet the needs of immigrants seeking personal and economic security. You know that immigrants are a massive benefit to American culture, businesses, armed forces, and communities. At the most basic level, America is a country of immigrants; why should others be denied just because they arrived later? You see the Right’s fabricated “national security crises” and “dangerous migrant caravans” as nefarious political messaging to stir up xenophobia with the ultimate purpose of increasing voter turnout. You feel that “protecting American values” is really just meant to protect those in power.

Left Narrative

The Democratic platform centers around the idea that not only do immigrants support America, but that they are America. They believe that immigrants are essential to society and the economy as they enrich culture, grow food, hold office, serve in the armed forces, and help to build communities. After all, today’s America is largely a country of immigrants. 

While the U.S. immigration system may have been broken long before Donald Trump took office, the Left was appalled by his efforts to whip up votes by tapping into nationalist sentiment. Democrats strongly believe that the United States should be a “beacon of hope” for those suffering violence and injustice, which is why the party is committed to... 

  • Providing a roadmap to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people in the United States who encompass an essential part of the economy and nation at large.
  • Prioritizing family reunification for children separated from their families at the border and bringing back reunification programs ended by the Trump Administration. 

While definitive data on undocumented immigrants and their impact is sparse, studies have shown a significant correlation between undocumented immigrants and positive outcomes.

  • From 2012-2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that relative to undocumented immigrants, US-born citizens are 2x more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5x more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4x more likely to be arrested for property crimes.
  • The CUNY Institute found that when immigration increases, violent crime rates generally go down.
  • Undocumented workers were also critical to the COVID-19 response and recovery: an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants served on the front lines as “essential workers.”

Twenty-five years ago, the IRS created a program that allowed people without a Social Security number to file taxes. A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report found that since then, 50-75% of undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes each year.

The other side...

Conservatives will say that all Democrats want a lawless Southern border, which is misleading. To be fair, the most significant disagreement within the party regards illegal immigration: 68% of strong liberals view it as “acceptable,” while 55% of moderate liberals say it is “unacceptable.” The point is that “acceptable” and “ideal” are very different. When fleeing violence, forced gang participation, and other horrors most Americans will never have to worry about, immigrating illegally may be their only choice. It’s not a long-term solution, though: a legal immigration system that attracts and keeps immigrants in the United States, strengthens democracy, and enhances long-term economic competitiveness is what America needs.

“The Right” refers to and is interchangeable with the Republican Party: moderate Conservatives and Traditionalists. While, in reality, the Right isn’t a monolithic voting bloc, this topic guide treats the Right as a middle-ground aggregate of moderate Conservatives and Traditionalists.

If your news outlets lean Right...

You probably feel that individuals entering the country illegally have violated one of our nation’s core values - law and order. You are not unsympathetic to their human right to safety. However, you find this to be enormously disrespectful to the law-abiding citizens and legal immigrants who have become proud Americans to make this country great. More tangibly, however, you also find the Left’s illogical push to reward illegal activity and de-prioritize border security as superficial virtue-signaling to bolster their poll numbers. When you look past their political pandering, you see a crisis that requires immediate attention and a necessity to reinforce our security to solve real issues in human tracking, drugs, and criminal activity. As a result, if you identify as right of center, you’re happy with the Republican party’s strong stance on border enforcement and may even want to see a southern border wall constructed.

Right Narrative

The Republican platform states, "Our party is the natural home for those who come in search of freedom and justice. We welcome all to the Great Opportunity Party." Contrary to narratives often portrayed in the mainstream media, the Republican party values immigrants and recognizes the outsized benefit to our nation's economy. However, just like American citizens, immigrants must respect the rule of law, which prioritizes American citizens' welfare. The GOP states that "undocumented immigration endangers everyone, exploits the taxpayers, and insults all who aspire to enter America legally."

To decrease the cost of undocumented immigrants and protect the livelihoods of legal Americans (immigrant or otherwise), the Republican party's priorities include:

  • Instituting mandatory nationwide E-verify programs, which are internet-based systems that verify employees' employment authorization and identity 
  • Passing the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program to ensure that public funds are only given to legal U.S. residents.
  • ~In 2013, a prominent conservative think tank projected that all undocumented immigrant households together have an aggregate annual deficit of around $54.5 billion (tax revenue minus use of public services).
  • ~All told, Americans cross-subsidize health care for unauthorized immigrants an estimated $18.5 billion each year. That works out to around $17,000 per person per year, primarily funded by federal tax, state tax, and increased insurance costs revenue.
  • Strengthening the southern border wall to cover the entire border and deter future illegal immigration.
  • In 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Protection added 29 miles of primary pedestrian wall and 603 agents to a stretch of the border in Arizona. From 2007 to 2015, this decreased illegal entries by 82% and increased meth and heroin seizures by more than 8,000% and 39,554%, respectively.

The other side...

Immigration has created large demographic and voting shifts in the United States; as of 2020, naturalized citizens made up one-tenth of all eligible voters in 2020. The Democratic Party operates under the assumption that illegal immigrants will be an electoral advantage once naturalized. As a result, the party has pushed for voting privileges for undocumented immigrants, obstructed ICE officers investigating criminal activity in "sanctuary cities," and burdened the economy with cheap imported labor. Ultimately, this has led to increased pushback from legal immigrants: in 2020, Trump made larger gains with Latino voters than any Republican president in recent history.

These issues are complicated, and it's not realistic to assert that one single approach is perfect. America was built on the promise of a better life, and to maintain that core; it must set a strong precedent of law and order to preserve the security and wellbeing of its citizens. It is unjust to use the country's resources and jeopardize its prosperity for those that have already broken its fundamental values - especially when there are millions of citizens and veterans currently in need of those resources today. Republicans appreciate that those who enter the country legally and contribute to our society are invaluable assets. They firmly believe America should continue to prioritize them and current citizens above all else.

Right Narrative

Narrative Foundations

1. It is wrong that illegal immigrants violate the country’s laws.

2. Illegal immigrants are a byproduct of poor border management, and promoting their path to citizenship sets a dangerous precedent for the country’s border security.

3. Illegal immigrants strain social safety services in the United States funded by the taxes of American citizens.

4. The nation’s top priority is the care of its citizens. America cannot prioritize the well-being of outside individuals over our own. 

5. Crimes committed inside the U.S. by illegal immigrants should not have happened in the first place.

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