2020 Election
By Charlotte Alter
April 11, 2019

The shakeup at the Department of Homeland Security this week suggests that President Trump is angling to make immigration a centerpiece of the 2020 election. The bet, it seems, is that if the President pushes the border back into the political limelight, it will animate his base—while forcing Democrats onto the defensive. But will the strategy work?

Political analysts say it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the nation is deeply divided on immigration. A slight majority disapproves of Trump’s hardline policies overall, with larger numbers outright rejecting the President’s most controversial tactics. For example, two-thirds of Americans opposed Trump’s now-shelved “zero tolerance” policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a poll last June. Trump’s signature campaign promise to build a border wall isn’t popular either: in a January Pew Research Center survey, 58% of respondents opposed significantly expanding the existing barrier with Mexico.

On the other hand, the President’s core voters are motivated by the debate over illegal immigration. A recent Pew survey found that Republican support for the border wall is now at an all-time high. Ensuring that immigration remains a headline story, especially on conservative news outlets like Fox News, may therefore help Trump get his base to the polls in 2020, as it did in both 2016 and in the lead up to the 2018 midterm election. Last fall, amid widespread, and largely exaggerated, reports of a migrant “caravan” heading towards the US, Gallup found that the number of Americans who cited immigration as the top problem facing the country surged from 13% to 21% in less than a month. During the same period, three-quarters of GOP voters said illegal immigration was a major concern, compared to only 19% of Democratic-leaning voters.

“This is a good issue for the Republican base,” says GOP strategist David Winston. “This is a promise he made to them in 2016, which is why he’s coming back to it now.”

But there’s likely another reason Trump is again pushing the immigration issue to center stage: forcing a national conversation about illegal immigration promises to leave Democrats flatfooted. Apart from supporting a path to citizenship, especially for young people brought to the country as minors, almost none of the Democrats currently running for president have offered anything akin to a comprehensive immigration plan. Only one—former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro—has published a detailed immigration proposal of any kind.

Democrats are tongue-tied partly because an immigration plan that satisfies their base would likely includes a complex patchwork of legislation, department regulations and executive actions. That kind of reform is hard execute and even harder to explain to voters during a stump speech. “Hire more immigration judges to adjudicate credible fear claims” is harder to chant than “Build that wall!”

“They’re gonna say they don’t want to separate families, that they don’t want to be as bad as Trump, because they want to be clear they’re not evil,” says Jess Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, who helped organize the Families Belong Together marches last year. “But they don’t want to have a conversation about policy, because that will get into things that will alienate voters in Iowa and in South Carolina. By and large the overall feeling is that it is not helpful in gaining new votes.”

Castro stands out as the exception. His plan would make illegal immigration a civil offense rather than a criminal one, and promises to “effectively end” the use of detention and for-profit detention centers in immigration cases. He’s also proposed a “21st Century Marshall Plan” to bolster economic development in Central America so that people have fewer reasons to flee to the U.S. “Trump has made this a central issue in this campaign,” says Jennifer Fiore, a senior advisor to Secretary Castro. “So Secretary Castro is showing what a bold and progressive immigration plan looks like.”

Beyond that, Democratic candidates’ proposals have been piecemeal at best. Senator Kamala Harris recently introduced the American Dream Employment Act, which would allow young people who qualify under DACA to work in the Senate or House of Representatives, while Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has promised to “fix our broken immigration system,” but stops short of offering specifics on her campaign website.

Several 2020 candidates have flirted with calls to “Abolish ICE,” a goal of many liberals. Last year, Gillibrand said she agreed with activists who called to abolish ICE, and that she wanted to to “get rid of it, start over, reimagine it, and build something that actually works.” Warren called for “replacing ICE with something that reflects our values,” and Harris said on MSNBC last year that “we need to probably think about starting from scratch.” But some of them have toned down this rhetoric as the primary ramps up. When asked about immigration at a January town hall, Gillibrand called the situation at the border “inhumane and intolerable,” but did not repeat her previous statement on abolishing ICE.

In a recent campaign appearance in Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders pushed for immigration reform but said he was not in favor of “open borders,” because “there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.”

One reason why these candidates may be backing off the leftwing rallying cry to Abolish ICE is that the broader public doesn’t support the idea: a 2018 poll found that only 1 in 4 Americans favors eliminating the enforcement agency.

But the debate over the future of U.S. immigration policy isn’t necessarily all bad for Democrats, Some Democratic strategists believe the party will emerge with the upper hand, so long as they are able to train voters’ focus on the President’s unpopular ideas. “He’s proven over and over and again that every time he tries to enact one of his more egregious policies on immigration, he alienates Democrats, middle of the road voters, and he alienates Republicans,” says Joel Benenson, a pollster who has advised Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “He’s shooting himself in the foot.”

Indeed, while Trump’s immigration policies are popular among his hardcore base, moderate Republicans and swing voters tend to be more ambivalent. “The Republican base is not large enough to actually deliver a majority coalition” in 2020, warned Winston, the Republican strategist.

Castro’s campaign is already putting money on that bet. They believe that images of young children separated from their immigrant families will be more alienating to moderates than endearing to Trump’s base . “If the president wants to make this a referendum on immigration,” says Fiore, “we’re making it a referendum on humanity.”

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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