This weekend’s Washington Post makes an important point about the refugee crisis at the southern border: For the first time in years, immigration politics are no longer a win-win for Democrats. Although the article admittedly indulges in the “how will it play?” obsession that plagues D.C. political reporting, it also highlights a burgeoning left-wing rupture that could help scramble the prematurely stale 2016 primaries.
For years, it has been widely assumed that immigration politics is almost all upside for Democrats: The party would benefit from passing a landmark reform bill, but it would also benefit from trying to do so and having its efforts squashed by the GOP. Either outcome, so the story goes, would cement the long-term loyalty of Hispanic voters. That logic has shifted slightly in the last couple of years, as legislative gridlock has increased the pressure on President Obama to take risky unilateral steps, but it still mostly holds. On immigration politics, national Democrats have few reasons for worry.
With the recent surge in arrivals of migrant children at the border, that dynamic has suddenly and dramatically shifted. Legislative progress may be slow, and responsibility for a reform bill may be diffuse, but the fate of over 50,000 vulnerable children constitutes a highly visible and immediate crisis. On this topic, it’s much easier to focus attention on the President, and much harder to deflect blame onto Congress. Now, some of the complaints leveled against Obama in the Post article are silly—he seems disengaged! He didn’t do a photo-op at the border!—but the article features an arresting remark from Maryland’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley: “It is contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death […] in a place where drug gangs are the greatest threat to stability, rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere.”
O’Malley’s surprisingly strong language—he is, after all, charging the President’s likely policy with “summarily send[ing] children back to death”—is even more striking when compared to Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks on this topic. Last month, Clinton told a town hall meeting: “They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who the responsible adults in their family are […] We have to send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”
To be clear, there are actually two distinct policy questions here: What should be done with the children who are here now, and what should be done in the future to discourage further arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children? Clinton, as we are regularly reminded, is the likely Democratic nominee in 2016, but her conflation of these two issues may not sit well with voters on the party’s left. Indeed, O’Malley’s comments point to a rare, unexpected instance of immigration politics proving dangerous for certain Democratic politicians. The Democratic base is extremely receptive (and rightly so) to the narrative of GOP obstructionism, which should help shield Obama Administration figures from blame on the failure to pass a reform bill. But this issue is different: it’s more immediate, more visible, and not as easily assimilated to the narrative of congressional gridlock. Besides, Hillary Clinton is no longer serving in the Obama Administration; she’s not subject to the same practical constraints as the President and has, if she wants it, more breathing room for creative suggestions on this crisis. If she’s unwilling to take advantage of it, Democratic voters angry about immigration inaction may take the opportunity to start considering their alternatives.