By Seung Min Kim
July 23, 2016
Three years after legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws passed the Senate, Democrats and Republicans could hardly be farther apart on the issue — a chasm brought into sharp relief by the parties' competing presidential platforms and by the rhetoric at the GOP convention here this week.
Donald Trump took pains to spotlight the parents of children killed by immigrants in the country illegally, who were given coveted speaking time before a national audience. The candidate's signature border wall permeated the GOP platform. And in his formal convention address, Trump's tough, security-focused approach was punctuated by rowdy crowd chants of "Build the wall!"
"My plan is the exact opposite of the radical and dangerous immigration policy of Hillary Clinton. Americans want relief from uncontrolled immigration, which is what we have now. Communities want relief," Trump bellowed. "Yet Hillary Clinton is proposing mass amnesty, mass immigration, and mass lawlessness."
A few hours before Trump took the stage, the GOP convention gave a megaphone to Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., who has been accused of racially profiling Latinos and is known for harsh immigration enforcement policies. Democrats are more concerned with “the rights of illegal aliens and criminals than we are with protecting our own country,” Arpaio charged.
The Republican platform endorses an impenetrable wall along the Mexico border, calls for curbing green cards for future immigrants and opposes “any form of amnesty” for those who crossed into the United States illegally.
Democrats are sprinting in the other direction. At Clinton's convention next week in Philadelphia, they will give full-throated support for President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration that have already been blocked by the courts, while subtly rebuking the administration’s efforts to curb the recent spikes of immigrants arriving illegally on the Southern border.
The deep partisan split over immigration casts heavy doubt that Congress could pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul early next year with a new occupant at the White House and a newly-minted Congress.
The canyon between the Democratic Party and the GOP when it comes to immigration policy “certainly has been problematic,” said Alfonso Aguilar, the head of the Latino Partnership, an organization that promotes conservative policy among Hispanics.
“The way Latino voters see it is, one party insults us and the other party is playing politics with us,” Aguilar said in an interview here. “This is very important because Democrats are banking on the insults, but they don’t see that it doesn’t solve it when you use the issue for political gain.”
The dramatic divide between the parties is reflected in their choice of convention speakers.
“Only Trump will stand against terrorists and end illegal immigration,” said Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed by a gang member here illegally in 2008. “Build the wall. Only Trump mentions Americans killed by illegals. Trump will put America first — not crooked Hillary.”
During his address Thursday, Trump referenced the speech Shaw — as well as Mary Ann Mendoza and Sabine Durden, who relayed similar stories to the crowd at Quicken Loans Arena — gave earlier in the week, calling them “just three brave representatives of many thousands.”
Rarely have the parents of children killed by immigrants illegally been given such a high-profile platform.
“Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more deeply than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our border,” said the Republican nominee.
Besides the border wall, the GOP platform calls for immediate revocation of Obama’s executive actions that affect young immigrants brought here illegally and undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders. The latter has been blocked by the courts.
The platform also calls it “indefensible” to allow more than 1 million immigrants to obtain green cards every year — showing the influence of conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse Trump.
“Illegal immigration endangers everyone, exploits the taxpayers, and insults all who aspire to enter America legally,” the document reads.
Several prominent Latino Republicans were in Cleveland this week trying to push back.
“The policy position of wanting to deport the 12 million folks who are already here, building this massive wall, intercepting the remittances of hard-working migrants who are sending money back to their grandmothers and mothers, and of course trying to remove birthright citizenship from the Constitution are a waste of time,” said Daniel Garza, the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a Latino outreach group funded by the Koch network.
The GOP platform is a far cry from the recommendations in its post-2012 election autopsy report. That document, drafted after Mitt Romney lost by 44 points among Latinos, called on the party to embrace immigration reform and other proposals aimed at Hispanic voters.
Immigration hardliners dismissed the document, and praised Trump's implicit rejection of it.
“I like the direction” of the platform on immigration, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most hardline opponents of an overhaul, said in an interview this week. “I thought the autopsy report from 2012 was a big mistake and I said so from the beginning.”
It’s a much different story with Democrats. Their draft platform wants to push Obama’s executive actions — already in legal jeopardy — even further. It calls for stopping raids, a tactic that has been used by the Obama administration to find immigrants who had come here illegally within the last two years. And it demands a halt to family detention, again putting it at odds with the administration.
“Those immigrants already living in the United States, who are assets to their communities and contribute so much to our country, should be incorporated completely into our society through legal processes that give meaning to our national motto: E Pluribus Unum,” the draft Democratic platform reads.
One of the headliners at the Democratic National Convention next week is Astrid Silva, a "Dreamer" who was brought here unlawfully as a young child. The immigration activist has long been pen pals with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, telling the Nevada Democrat her story of crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico when she was 4 years old.
“Watching the [GOP] convention at times felt more like a Klan rally than a convention for a great political party,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the liberal pro-reform group, America’s Voice. Clinton’s support for comprehensive immigration is backed by a 3-to-1 margin, the veteran immigration advocate said, while Trump’s policy of removing all undocumented immigrants is opposed by the same margins.
“You tell me who is radical?” Sharry said.
Polling on immigration paints a public that appears to favor a comprehensive approach that mirrors legislation written by the "Gang of Eight" senators more than three years ago.
A Gallup Poll released Thursday underscores the divide. It showed 84 percent of U.S. adults favor a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally as long as they met a series of requirements. Just a third support building a wall along the southern U.S. border.
Even among Republicans, the pathway to citizenship is more popular than a border wall.
Key GOP lawmakers believe Trump’s border wall is more nuanced than the nominee, or the platform, suggests. In an interview this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee oversees immigration laws, argued that the wall would be not just physical but virtual, with drones and sensors.
“Remember that a physical wall across the Southern border is not going to be a physical wall in every place,” Grassley said. “You don’t secure the border just by a wall of any kind.”
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