Steve Tobocman is a former Michigan state legislator and co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University. John Austin is former president of the Michigan State Board of Education and director of the Michigan Economic Center. Researcher and strategist Suzette Brooks Masters provided the authors with an analysis of the relevant research.
In 2009, with support from the philanthropy-backed New Economy Initiative for southeast Michigan we helped to create Global Detroit to welcome immigrant talent, entrepreneurship, and investment as key elements to growing our state’s economy. Over the past decade, a host of new programs—the Office of Global Michigan, Welcoming Michigan, and local government efforts—have worked with Global Detroit to make Michigan a national leader in the immigrant-inclusive economic development. The work has been supported by Republican and Democratic governors, local chambers of commerce, universities, philanthropy, private business, as well as by traditional immigrant and refugee services providers.
Yet in 2016, Donald Trump narrowly carried Michigan, promising to bring back our manufacturing economies’ golden days, but also by offering a clear villain for Michigan and America’s social and economic woes – immigrants. As the nation’s attention turns to the 2020 presidential election, all eyes are on Michigan and sister Midwest swing states and how we will vote. Immigration will again be a cornerstone of Trump’s identity politics. When not busy lambasting the impeachment investigation as a sham, President Trump is clearly eager to double down on anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric as the path to another victory.
Democrats need to be prepared to offer their own message on immigration that can firmly make the issue a positive, much as they have done on health care. Developing a national Democratic message that speaks to democratic ideals and appeals to a broad cross-section of voters is the text of an article we recently wrote for Politico magazine.
But developing a message on immigration that pulls the country together instead of driving it apart is no easy task. Make no mistake: Trump’s words and actions on immigration have outraged us and hurt Michiganders. In addition to separating children and families at the Mexican borders, seeking to ban Muslims separated many Michigan families given the state’s considerable Muslim population, many who travel back home on business and to see family. ICE raids have terrorized Michigan’s immigrant communities. By virtually eliminating the nation’s refugee resettlement program (an act itself that seems to contradict America’s very founding ideals), Trump cut off one of our only sources of population growth—Michigan has been the fourth largest resettlement state over the past decade.
Yet pure outrage and righteousness directed at Trump’s stance on immigrants can be polarizing. When Democratic presidential candidate debates focus on decriminalizing violation of our immigration laws they seem radically out of sync with truly mixed public opinion on immigration issues. When candidate exchanges center on providing free health care for the undocumented, they feed the fires of resentment that immigrants are getting “special treatment at my expense.”
While most Americans are outraged by Trump’s excesses, they are not necessarily aligned with the activist left on immigration issues or at least with how the Democratic debates have presented the issue. Without a powerful message that can unite voters, Democrats risk helping Trump win re-election. Without a message with broad appeal, even a Democratic victory in 2020 likely will leave the nation without comprehensive immigration reform—an elusive policy goal that has left millions of residents in crisis about their status and future.
Fortunately, new research on how Americans respond to disruptive forces like immigration and the looming majority-minority demographic shift provides insight on how such a message can be constructed without compromising the values that Democrats hold on immigration.
A starting point is to acknowledge that America is experiencing profound demographic shifts, as well as profound economic impacts from a more automated and global economy. It also is critical to realize that the politics of immigration are as much about the message and the values behind those messages, as they are about the immigration policies being offered.
A good part of white America is responding to growing racial diversity by exhibiting what researcher Robin Di Angelo describes in her book “White Fragility (2018)” as a disbelieving defensiveness, feeling one’s own heretofore dominant place in society may be under siege. As a result, calling Trump and/or his followers “racist”, only makes things worse, entrenching hostilities and defensiveness, forcing whites to retreat into comfortable world views and disassociate with those promoting more inclusive policies, values, and objectives.
Unfortunately, there are a number of narrative frames that immigration proponents and Democratic candidates routinely use that (unwittingly) pit more Americans against immigrants. Narratives that focus exclusively on the needs and policy solutions for immigrants, rather than rooting those policy solutions in a lens of shared identities and shared values (making it about them rather than us) can alienate voters. Talking about the coming “majority-minority” society and focusing on the “countdown” to that new reality only exacerbates racial anxiety and anti-immigrant sentiment. The intense, round-the-clock focus on the horrible treatment and personal tribulations of immigrants and refugees can also leave other Americans also facing hardship and economic challenges feeling ignored and unseen.
Well-intentioned folks like us haven’t helped by using economic arguments that point out the extraordinary contributions of immigrants — high levels of immigrant entrepreneurship, their predominance in high-skilled STEM careers, their hard work. Deifying immigrants as better than Americans can foster more resentment among Midwest voters who are struggling to find their own place in a new globalized economy.
The debate about immigration is increasingly polarized and dominated by more strident extremes, eliminating space for agreement. Yet the majority of public opinion (about two-thirds of the public) is at neither extreme. Researchers at More in Common have published widely on this in their Hidden Tribes and Perception Gap reports identifying an “Exhausted Majority” on issues like immigration. To make progress, Democrats must tackle the immigration issue in ways that reach some meaningful segment of white and African-American voters and immigrant skeptics, while firmly pushing against the gravitational pull of white nationalism. There are no shortcuts around the hard work of listening to members of the public and reaching the Exhausted Majority, particularly in places that matter like Michigan.
We must offer a narrative that affords optimism and builds shared hope for a brighter future. A message about realizing the American Dream for everyone. A dream that is not limited to immigrants, but a promise made to all American families. And making it very clear that immigrants aren’t “special people” who will receive special treatment—they have to play by the rules like everyone else.
Leaders need to communicate that not only do immigrants want to be American and want to live out American ideals (hard work, opportunity, freedom), but America is stronger and more vibrant when our state and local communities work to build inclusion—forming a narrative about us rather than about them.
Nothing fuels resentment more than feeling like someone else is getting a “handout” or a pass. Democrats need to reassure the American public that they want a modern immigration system that is both generous and secure, fair and orderly. That we will have secure borders.
Finally Democrats need turn down the volume on the immigration issue, despite our outrage. Immigration and immigrants are not the looming menace to our country and way of life; nor are they the defining moral and economic good of America. In times of growing complexity in life and economic change, authoritarians rise by offering a return to simplicity, “sameness” and order. Leaders must help voters place the issue of immigrants and immigration in a similarly simple and orderly context, one of many important, but complicated issues.
We have seen what lies at the end of President Trump’s leadership path on immigration. America at this hour desperately needs an alternative voice –a voice that speaks to the majority of Americans – creating a realistic vision for a stronger, more bonded, more resilient and more unified country. Michigan will be the stronger if such a voice emerges.