The Democratic Party’s showdown with President Trump over a southern border wall is the culmination of a dramatic shift on border security politics over the past decade.

In the mid-2000s, many prominent Democrats in Congress voted to spend billions on security fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, and some criticized the “sanctuary cities” that are now in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.

Democrats are now in lockstep against most of Trump’s immigration and border security initiatives, including virtually unanimous opposition to any funding for a proposed border wall.

Democratic evolution on immigration is evident in the contrast between the party’s 2012 and 2016 platforms. Although the 2012 platform promoted a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, it called for them to “get right with the law [and] learn English,” language now considered hostile by many immigrant rights groups. 

By 2016, the party officially removed all caveats on the path to citizenship.

{mosads}“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 2016 platform stated.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said shifting Democratic attitudes toward immigration are partly explained by their opposition to Trump.

“Democrats want to resist Trump at every turn. They don’t want him to get a legislative victory, and they don’t want him to pacify his core supporters,” O’Connell said.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) argues the change is in Democratic priorities, and not a response to Trump.

The outspoken proponent of comprehensive immigration reform said the issue was previously not a “cornerstone” for progressives.

“It is now a universal element and tenet of the progressive movement,” said Gutiérrez, who openly criticized President Obama and Democratic leaders for not pursuing immigration reform in 2009 and 2010, when his party controlled the White House and Congress.

“We marched, and they looked at their voters and they saw.”

The decline of membership in industrial unions, long an electoral bulwark for Democrats, weakened the party’s dependence on working-class whites.

That transition moved the party to the left, leaving conservative Democrats in the lurch.

“In 2006, we had a heck of a lot of Blue Dog [lawmakers],” said O’Connell. “Those folks are nearly gone.”

Still, many top liberal Democrats espoused hawkish immigration policies well into the 2000s.

In 2007, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) railed against a city that decided not to cooperate with federal immigration agents during a Democratic presidential debate.

“And what they found out is, as a consequence of that, their city went in the dumps — in the dumpsters. Stores started closing, everything started to happen, and they changed the policy,” said Biden.

Asked directly if he would allow U.S. cities to ignore federal law, Biden responded, “No.”

Sanctuary policies, Democrats now argue, make communities safer by allowing local law enforcement to focus on community policing with cooperation from undocumented residents.

The Trump administration has pushed against those policies, arguing sanctuary cities release and protect hardened criminals who could otherwise be deported. 

The 2006 Secure Fence Act, which authorized 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, passed with the support of some of the party’s current leaders, though the top two House Democrats, Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.), rejected it.

More than half of the Senate Democratic caucus backed it in an 80-19 vote, however. Sixty-four Democrats voted yes in the 283-138 House vote.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney pointed that out recently.

“They voted for it in 2006 — then-Sen. Obama [D-Ill.] voted for it. Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] voted for, Sen. [Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] voted for it,” he said.

Now, Democratic leaders say they won’t support any bill that includes a dime of funding for Trump’s wall.

Proponents of policies to reduce immigration have been quick to point out similarities between Trump’s policies and top Democrats’ past statements.

NumbersUSA, an advocacy group for decreased immigration, published a video in 2016 highlighting Clinton’s past positions on the issue.

“Look, I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,” Clinton said in a clip from a 2015 town hall.

Still, Clinton, pulled to the left during the 2016 presidential campaign in part by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) primary challenge, ran as the party’s nominee on a decidedly progressive platform.

For Gutiérrez, that’s proof of immigration’s new role within the larger progressive movement.

“People forget our friend Obama voted for the fence,” he said. “Today, [Democrats] cannot make that mistake and aspire to [higher office].”

Some Democrats dispute the characterization that the party has changed its position over the years.

Schumer, who is now the top Democrat in the upper chamber, flat-out denied Democrats have transitioned on border security policy.

“There’s been no transition,” he said Wednesday.

Schumer pointed to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, failed legislation that Democrats still tout as the premier solution to the immigration debate, as proof that the party has always supported strong border security.

“Take a look at the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill. We had very strong border security that I support to this day,” Schumer said.

Many of those provisions were put in the legislation to attract GOP support. The bill passed the Senate but never got a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

Republicans are critical of what they view as a semantic argument between a wall and enhanced border security.

“It sounds like everybody is looking to save face in some way or another. I really don’t think that kind of posturing is necessary,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber.

But Democrats, aside from taking the opportunity to hand Trump a legislative defeat, are unlikely to budge.

“I think the Democrats’ change of heart on immigration is about political survival in elections,” said O’Connell.

Many Democrats view the demographic and political shift in Nevada as a case study for the political consequences of their stance on immigration.

In a 1993 Senate speech, former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) famously railed against illegal immigration, questioning whether the 14th Amendment provides birthright citizenship.

Reid, who later called that the “low point” of his legislative career, narrowly won reelection in 2010 with overwhelming support from the state’s Hispanic organizers and the powerful Culinary Workers Union. Reid voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union, like many service unions in blue states, has taken a role manufacturing unions once played within the Democratic Party. Service unions are for the most part more diverse and urban than their industrial counterparts.

“The Culinary Union has become a huge force,” said Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston. “A Hispanic vote turnout machine.”

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Bernie Sanders Harry Reid Joe Biden John Cornyn

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video