Democrats wise to proceed cautiously on immigration

“Every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate has signed up for the open borders, and it's a bill, it's called the 'open borders bill,'” said Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE on October 6. 

The statement was completely false – there has never been any such bill – but it was typical of Trump's fabrications and rhetoric in the period leading up to the midterm elections. He also claimed, without evidence, that the migrant caravan heading for the United States had been infiltrated by Middle Easterners and “stone cold criminals.” To project a sense of looming crisis, he needlessly ordered thousands of U.S. troops to the border. And he falsely asserted that “Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan into our country.” Fortunately, voters saw through the demagogic fear-mongering, and a blue wave swept across the country.

But there is reason to be concerned that heading into the 2020 election, Democratic candidates seeking to placate the far left wing of the party will stake out positions that will alienate moderate voters who are not opposed to legal immigration and even some form of amnesty, but believe illegal immigration should be deterred and the border secured.


Sanctuary city policies and proposals to abolish the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are not only unwise and impractical, but send messages that are easily exploited by Trump for political purposes. They are also not supported by a majority of Americans.

Democrats can and should continue to support relief for immigrants eligible for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and comprehensive reform that would ultimately grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have resided in the country for years. Any such reform should also include provisions to strengthen enforcement, such as a mandatory E-Verify system that would require all job applicants to prove their legal right to work. According to a Fox News poll, 83 percent of Americans support this kind of reform.

As a criminal investigator at the San Francisco office of the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the 1980s, I was assigned to the San Francisco County Jail on a rotating basis. Our job was to go to the jail every day and review the booking information of newly arrived inmates who had been charged with anything from petty crimes to serious violent crimes. With the full cooperation of jail personnel, we identified those individuals who we had reason to believe were not U.S. citizens and interviewed them to determine their immigration status.

In most cases, those who were without documentation admitted they had entered the country illegally or had overstayed their temporary visas. A “detainer” was then accepted by jail personnel so that when the person's criminal case had been adjudicated, the detainee would be turned over to INS for deportation proceedings. This process worked very well for many years and resulted in the removal of thousands of illegal aliens who had run afoul of the law. Nobody's rights were violated during the process.

Since the full implementation of the sanctuary city policy in San Francisco, however, this sort of cooperation is prohibited. In 2015, Jose Garcia-Zarate, a Mexican citizen who had been deported five times, was released from the county jail despite a request from ICE that he be detained, and he went on to shoot and kill a young woman in San Francisco. Donald Trump seized upon this tragedy during the election of 2016 to attack sanctuary cities and bolster his claims that many illegal immigrants are criminals, though studies have shown that the percentage of criminals within the community of undocumented immigrants is no more, and possibly less than the general population. Nevertheless, Trump's argument resonated with voters who have no sympathy for sanctuary city policies such as the one still in place in San Francisco.

Not surprisingly, a 2017 Harvard-Harris poll found that 80 percent of voters nationwide believe local authorities should be required to turn illegal immigrants over to ICE. 

The political takeaway is that Democratic nominees for president in 2020 should make clear that they do not support the more extreme positions of some sanctuary cities, such as blocking ICE officials from performing their lawful duties, or they will pay a heavy price when votes are counted.

The recent movement to “abolish ICE” grew up in response to the heavy-handed and even cruel tactics of the Trump administration in executing its policy of separating detained family members, including small children from their mothers. There is no question that the administration's policy deserved criticism, but a number of Democratic politicians, most notably Senator Elizabeth Warren, called for the abolition of ICE altogether. Though none of them were calling for the elimination of the government's responsibility to control immigration or secure the border, their positions were seized upon by Trump and others as evidence that the Democratic Party supports open borders.

Unfortunately, when a prominent senator calls for an agency to be abolished, particularly one charged with enforcing immigration law, a large segment of moderate voters read into this language that enforcement should be eliminated or seriously curtailed.

Even at the height of the controversy over separation of detained families, an AP poll found that only 25 percent of Democrats favored abolishing ICE. 

It makes no sense, politically or in practice, to embrace such a position. Anyone seeking the Democratic nomination for president should direct their criticism of immigration policy at Trump, not the agency that is simply carrying out his orders.

In the months ahead, Trump can be counted on to call for extreme and even unconstitutional measures when it comes to immigration. If Democrats resist the temptation to do the same, they can make immigration a winning issue in the next election.

Bruce P. Kading retired as Chief of Fraud Investigations at the Chicago office of the INS after 21 years in government service; he is now a freelance writer and author of the novel Miguel’s Gift, published by the Chicago Review Press.