WASHINGTON -- Few fights have Democrats more certain that they have the upper hand against President Donald Trump than the one over border security: His plans to build walls, separate immigrant families and punish asylum-seekers have alienated voters since he took office.
Yet some Democrats fear their presidential candidates may embrace the one strategy that could dismay voters even more than Trump's emphasis on deportation -- ignoring Americans' fears about porous borders altogether.
The reluctance of Democratic candidates to address law and order challenges at the border has some of the party's seasoned operatives and activists fearing a trap.
"If Democrats don't change their narrative on this, Trump is going to cut them up," said Jeff Faux, co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank supported by organized labor. "They have to start dealing with this and convincing people they are for secure borders."
An ideologically diverse cross section of party insiders shares Faux's fear and has warned candidates to resist pressure from activists on immigration issues to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings, defund law enforcement at the border and even discard some existing border fencing.
The Democratic hopefuls have all taken aim at Trump's policies, especially family separation and the border wall. But most of them have no clear border security plan of their own.
Some have embraced calls to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a proposal from the party's left that Trump has branded as an abandonment of law enforcement. Some talk of a Marshall Plan of expanded aid to Central America, an idea that wins plaudits from scholars as a long-term policy but which would do little to address the crush of people on their way right now.
"Trump, in people's minds may not have the answer, but the Republicans at least acknowledge there is a problem," said a veteran Democratic pollster affiliated with one of the presidential candidates who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Democratic candidates don't. They are afraid of failing some kind of litmus test that isn't even there."
"If voters perceive we are for open borders, that is a big problem."
Some Democrats dispute that the party runs a significant risk on the issue. Trump's policies so offend so many Americans that the politically wise move is to keep the focus on how he has hurt families, they say.
"I don't think we risk losing people," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. "There are a lot of people who may have even moved over to the Democratic side in the 2018 election because they couldn't stomach the cruelty coming around the conversation on immigration."
"Trump is misjudging what the American people will tolerate around this issue," she said.
And, indeed, Trump made strenuous efforts to use fears about immigration to rally voters to his side in the 2018 midterm election. His warnings about "caravans" of immigrants headed north through Mexico failed to prevent his party from losing its majority in the House.
Lawmakers on the party's left who launched the movement to terminate ICE are calling on the candidates to develop immigration policies that put a priority on protecting civil rights, processing of asylum applications more quickly and decriminalizing unauthorized crossings.
Yet midterm elections often don't provide a great forecast of presidential contests, and polls do indicate public concern on the issue. A Gallup poll released in February showed 47% of those surveyed saying that large numbers of immigrants illegally entering the U.S. now present a "critical threat" to national interests. That was an 8-point increase since last year.
In a poll by Quinnipiac University in July, half of voters said they believed the president is racist, but a larger group, 60%, said they believed Democrats were more interested in exploiting immigration issues for political gain than in finding real solutions.
"The riffs that candidates are using now need to be updated," said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America's Voice, an immigrant rights group. "They need to have a clearer strategy for what is happening at the border today, and an updated approach for how we have a 21st century immigration system that combines the values of the pro-immigrant majority and legitimate demand for the government to gain better control of what is happening."
"It is a challenge to Democrats," he said. "Treating immigrants and minorities fairly has become a growing priority for the progressive base. They can't talk like Republicans. But they need to understand that for a lot of people in the center left and the center, if they hear a candidate talking about responsible controls and fair enforcement they will be a lot more generous toward refugees and immigrants."
Officials detained more than 103,000 immigrants at the southern border last month. That's still far below the levels hit during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but it's more than double the number from last year. The numbers are projected to keep rising. As Trump's "zero tolerance" policies have failed to stem the tide, the president is increasingly laying blame on Democrats for undermining his efforts.
The tendency of Democratic candidates to chafe even at use of the word "crisis" to describe the situation at the border concerns some former officials.
"The country is not happy with what is going on at the border," said John Sandweg, who served as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Obama administration. "It is legitimate to be saying it is unsustainable. The Department of Homeland Security is overwhelmed with the numbers. There is an insane backlog in the immigration courts. There is a crisis," he said.
"If these numbers continue, it will break through and be seen by a broader swath of the public as a concern," Sandweg said. "DHS is so massively overwhelmed that it would come to a point where a lot of voters will see this as a serious problem."
Trump is not subtle about the politics of the issue. He says publicly that he believes immigration will be a winner for him, something he can use to drive a wedge between Democrats and economically anxious voters who may be uncomfortable with Trump's plan but even less comfortable with no plan. At a recent fundraiser in Texas, he boasted that Democrats would pay a price at the ballot box in 2020 for their immigration policy.
Meanwhile, the 2020 Democratic hopefuls have found that hedging is a safe primary bet as they seek to impress a Democratic base that is enraged by the civil rights abuses documented at the border and the demonization of immigrants by the president. They are jostling to project defiance of Trump's policies and his framing of immigrants as a national security crisis.
"I believe our border is more secure than it has ever been," Julian Castro said on CNN this month. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said this month he opposes open borders, but when he spoke in detail about immigration at a recent rally in Madison, Wis., all of his policy plans focused on easing immigration restrictions, promising "a humane border policy for those who seek asylum." New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said much the same recently on "Face the Nation."
"I'd take the wall down," former Rep. Beto O'Rourke said in February during an interview on MSNBC, referring to the existing fencing in his hometown of El Paso.
And all seven of the current senators among the 2020 hopefuls wrote colleagues last week urging them to vote against Trump's request for increased funds for ICE.
"We cannot support the appropriation of funds that would expand this administration's unnecessarily cruel immigration enforcement policies, its inhumane immigrant detention systems, or its efforts to build the president's vanity project," the letter said.
The party's centrist groups increasingly have warned the candidates against paying disproportionate attention to activists who may not represent the average voter.
"Democrats need to be careful not to get sucked into the Twitterati and make sure they are speaking to the broader electorate," said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way. "We need to make sure we are acknowledging the nuances of immigration policy and not just demonizing the folks who are trying to enforce the law."
The concerns are shared beyond Third Way's usual audience of moderates.
"Democrats can dismiss what Trump says as racist, and much of it is," said Faux. "But much of it also has resonance with voters. ... This is a big hole in the Democratic Party posture that Trump is going to drive a truck through."
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