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Ramesh Ponnuru

Ramesh Ponnuru

President Donald Trump certainly knows how to direct attention where he wants it. When he raised the idea of issuing an executive order to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, it became a top news story. Because of these remarks, and other provocative comments from members of his party about immigration, the change in Republican attitudes on the issue since George W. Bush’s pro-immigration presidency is obvious to all.

But there has been a major, if lower-profile, shift on the Democratic side as well. You can see it in the polls. In 2005, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Democrats evenly divided about immigration, with 45 percent saying it strengthened the country and 44 percent saying it weakened it. By 2017, a huge 81 percent majority said it strengthened the country and only 16 percent dissented.

As is often the case, the evolution of Democratic attitudes can also be seen by tracking Hillary Clinton’s comments over the years. When she first ran for president, from 2006 through 2008, she was careful to take a moderate tack. She opposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, came out for “tougher employer sanctions” to deter the hiring of illegal immigrants, and toggled between calling them “illegal” and “undocumented” immigrants.

During her second run, under pressure from Bernie Sanders, she came out for driver’s licenses and apologized for using the term “illegal immigrants.” Talk of employer sanctions fell away. (Sanders himself, by the way, has also “evolved” on immigration.)

Both conviction and strategy propelled the Democratic change. As conservative Democrats have become conservative Republicans, there were fewer and fewer voters and politicians inside their coalition inclined toward restraint.

Many Democrats became convinced, as well, that a strong pro-immigration stand could help them win elections because it would appeal to Hispanics, a growing share of the electorate. The white working-class voters whom that stand might alienate were, in contrast, a shrinking share.

At the same time, support for immigration became more and more associated with cherished values such as tolerance, openness and opposition to racism; support for restrictions on it, with intolerance, closed-mindedness and bigotry. The familiar dynamic of polarization also took hold: The issue became a mark of distinction between the parties, and a desire to crack down on illegal immigration and cut legal immigration became something Democrats linked with their partisan enemies.

One way of reading the data is that Democrats have led public opinion toward greater support for immigration. Independents and Republicans, too, became more likely to regard it as a net plus for the country between 2005 and 2017. Their shift was, however, much smaller than the Democratic one.

Democrats may, however, have moved too far for their own good. The public still shows some ambivalence. Only a minority of Americans wants an increase in immigration levels.

While most Americans favor granting legal status to illegal immigrants who have put down roots and behaved well here, some members of that majority doubtless fear that a continuing refusal to enforce the law means that one amnesty will be followed by more. Americans are also open to combining an amnesty with some of the changes that Trump wants, such as ending the visa lottery designed to increase diversity.

Democrats also seem to be failing to make the favorable trade between the white working class and Hispanics that they had expected. For some voters, the new rhetoric, which emphasizes the harshness of deportation and downplays the necessity of enforcement, signals indifference to the rule of law and to their opinions. The abandonment of the old, more balanced approach has lent credibility to Trump’s claim that Democrats favor “open borders.”

The president has used the opening Democrats have given him to push for policies that are also out of step with public opinion. Most Americans do not approve of his job performance on immigration. Even more disliked the separation of families at the border. Support for birthright citizenship seems to have risen in recent years.

The public seems to want immigration policies that are hard-headed without being hard-hearted. Neither of our political parties, at the moment, seems interested in offering them.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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