Opinion | Trump’s awful threat to separate families should wake up Democrats

For those who were shocked when Donald Trump hinted during his CNN town hall that he might restart migrant family separations if elected president in 2024, here’s a newsflash: House Republicans passed an actual border agenda on Thursday that is every bit as radical as that idea — and in some ways more so.

This confluence of events — along with the expectation of a new influx of migrants after a rule restricting immigration during the pandemic expired Thursday — points to a sobering reality for Democrats. The outlines of the 2024 argument over immigration are coming into sharper focus, and it’s not clear Democrats have an answer to the challenges this will pose.

“Our whole country is being destroyed,” Trump said Wednesday. He claimed cities like New York were being “swamped” by migrants and insisted tough deterrence such as separating families is the answer: “When you say to a family that if you come we’re going to break you up, they don’t come.”

The idea that our country is being destroyed is the sort of lie that’s too big to debunk. But it advances more important meta-claims: the only answer to those images of disorder is maximally harsh border enforcement; immigration has become dangerously unmanageable; half measures will no longer suffice.

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The House GOP border bill, which passed on party lines, illustrates what this vision means in practice. It would impose many draconian restrictions on asylum applicants and reinstate Trump’s policy of forcing migrants to wait in Mexico for hearings, which produced humanitarian horrors. The White House and serious immigration analysts say this would end asylum seeking at the border as we know it and scrap existing legal protections for unaccompanied migrant kids.

Some moderate Republicans backed the bill only because they know it will never become law. Even so, the GOP bill represents a genuine statement of values. Most Republicans believe restricting the number of asylum seekers who settle here to the greatest extent possible is a solution. In pushing this, they are enshrining Trump’s principle — that pretty much any level of deterrence is justified, since our national survival is at stake — into a concrete agenda.

“Gutting asylum as we know it is more radical than Trump’s family separation policy,” Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, told me. “Asylum is a long-standing U.S. policy to protect the most vulnerable fleeing persecution and violence. Gutting it will cause unimaginable harm.”

Biden is responding to the expected influx with his own restrictions on asylum-seeking at the border, which immigration advocates have rightly condemned. But Biden is also opening up a variety of new channels for migrants to apply for refuge from abroad.

The Biden vision is to shift incentives. The goal is to discourage migrants from making the dangerous trek here while providing alternative pathways from afar that don’t strain our border infrastructure. Jorge Loweree, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, notes that Biden’s policies will allow in “many hundreds of thousands of people per year” who would be excluded under the GOP bill, which appears to close off those new pathways.

The fundamental difference here is over whether providing refuge to migrants is generally good or bad for the country. Republicans want drastically fewer migrants to settle here as an end in itself. Biden’s overall approach seeks to settle far more people here as an affirmative national good that is faithful to our international human rights commitments — provided it’s managed well.

But it’s not clear Democrats will be able to communicate this core difference to the American people. In the coming weeks, the radicalism of the GOP agenda will likely be lost as news organizations and the public focus on the border, which will be hard to manage in the near term. That’s more vivid than white papers condemning the GOP bill.

The deep perversity to all this is that fixing the asylum system is actually possible. That would entail something like further widening legal channels to apply from afar plus spending much more money to process asylum seekers so those who qualify are moved through quickly while those who don’t are promptly removed. It would also provide legalization for undocumented immigrants already here.

But all that would require congressional action, and Republicans won’t agree to anything like it. In the interim, they will benefit from their own inaction as voters will likely hold the administration responsible for images of turmoil.

Democrats have to find a way to communicate that the answer to border disorder isn’t merely “toughness” and “restrictions”; it’s letting more people in through legal channels and managing the process of applying at the border better. At a time when myriad factors throughout Central and South America are driving huge migration flows, one key route to a more stable system is facilitating more legal immigration, not less.

If Democrats can’t get this right, voters might conclude that the Trump-GOP offering is the only way to achieve order. The stakes in getting this wrong are extraordinarily high. We could end up with reinstated family separations and a whole lot worse.

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