How Far Will Democrats Go to Limit Immigration Enforcement?

The Overton Window or the Georgetown echo chamber?

By Andrew R. Arthur on October 21, 2019

Just when you think that Democrats cannot push proposals that limit immigration enforcement any further, they manage to do just that. Abolish ICE? Sure, why not. Abolish CBP? The next logical step — they are a "rogue agency". Decriminalize illegal entry? Makes sense when you are talking about abolishing ICE and CBP. Ignore detainers? If it gets us votes. In fact, give alien criminals the heads-up that detainers have been issued. Bar ICE from entering jails? They can just wait at the front door — immigration enforcement is "terrorism in its basic form", after all. Why not healthcare for illegal aliens? You don't want them to miss work. In fact, to make it easier for persons who have failed to obtain legal status to work, why not impede worksite enforcement? Better yet! Give illegal workers notice of ICE audits and raids so they can "update any necessary documents and make other preparations" (wink-wink). There does not appear to be a bottom in this race towards it.

Which brings me to the Overton Window. As the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP) explains:

The Overton Window is a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. The core concept is that politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support — they generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window. Other policy ideas exist, but politicians risk losing popular support if they champion these ideas. These policies lie outside the Overton Window.

But the Overton Window can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without unduly risking their electoral support. Sometimes politicians can move the Overton Window themselves by courageously endorsing a policy lying outside the window, but this is rare. More often, the window moves based on a much more complex and dynamic phenomenon, one that is not easily controlled from on high: the slow evolution of societal values and norms.

This is a somewhat abstract concept, but the MCPP helpfully offers an example:

To get an idea of how the Overton Window can change over time, think about the Prohibition Era. Just a few generations ago, the sale and use of alcoholic beverages was made illegal by federal law, suggesting that this policy was safe inside the Overton Window. But fast forward to today when people poke fun of the folly of Prohibition and virtually no politician endorses making alcohol illegal again. The Overton Window has clearly shifted, and Prohibition is no longer within its borders.

So, are the proposals in the first paragraph within the Overton Window?

Let's look at the worksite enforcement proposals (all of which, as the links show, are real). In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 84 percent of national adults, 88 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 82 percent of blacks, and 65 percent of Hispanics strongly favor requiring business owners to check the immigration status of workers they hire. There is no reason to believe that these numbers have shifted in the interim six years. So these proposals (which have become law in discreet locations) are likely still outside the window in America as a whole.

Of course, worksite enforcement would be a lot simpler if the federal government simply made E-Verify mandatory. And, as I have explained, the president could mandate that employers use E-Verify through executive action. He has not done so, however, meaning (1) mandatory E-Verify is outside the borders of the Overton Window; (2) strong forces are militating against the president taking such action; or (3) neither the president nor any of his advisors read my posts.

Given the fact that 64 percent of Democrats polled support E-Verify, (1) appears to be wrong. The third option is highly likely, but I am certainly not the only person who has reached this conclusion. That would suggest that either the president is holding back on using this option, or some combination of business and labor opposes mandatory E-Verify. I am not a conspiracy theorist (although some conspiracies are real, of course), so I will assume that the president only plans on making mandatory E-Verify part of a larger deal on immigration that would address the interests of the aforementioned interest groups.

That said, if that many Democrats support E-Verify, that must mean that they support worksite enforcement. I will note that the most extreme impediments to worksite enforcement come from Democratic strongholds (California and New York City), and any voter base that thinks Gavin Newsom or Bill DeBlasio is the best choice out of millions of options is likely a bit farther to the left than the population of the United States as a whole.

This dovetails with the "abolish ICE" question. I will note that powerful Democrats have managed to limit funding to the agency, but the House Homeland Security Committee, (a Democratic-controlled committee that has jurisdiction over this issue), has not actually seriously considered any legislation that would abolish ICE. This appears to be a bumper sticker proposal that may sound good to the Squad, but likely would spell electoral doom for Democratic leadership.

I note that even the head of DHS under the Obama administration, Jeh Johnson, has stated:

Calls to abolish ICE only serve to sow even greater division in the American public and in its political leadership, damaging any remaining prospect of bipartisan immigration reform. This is one of the things Americans hate about Washington — that politics has become the end, not the means.

Nor is abolishing ICE a popular position for voters as a whole. According to a July 2018 Politico poll, 25 percent of voters approved of the idea, while 51 percent were opposed. Interestingly, however: "Among Democrats, 43 percent say the government should get rid of ICE, while only 34 percent say it should keep ICE." It is not clear whether those responding to the poll know the full range of duties the agency is charged with (including "Preventing Terrorism" and "Investigating Mass Marketing Fraud", to name two), however. Notably, 79 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of independents were in favor of keeping the agency.

So I would conclude that this one is outside of the Overton Window, at least at the moment.

The same goes for calls to "abolish CBP". Again, former Secretary Johnson has explained that most people in this country "simply want to secure the country's borders, to eliminate the inefficiencies in the system and to treat fairly the undocumented people who were brought here as children and have committed no serious crimes." I would take the last part with a grain of salt (the severity of the crime is usually in the eye of the individual), but the fundamental point about securing the country's borders is sound.

In my opinion (as both a former immigration prosecutor and congressional staffer), waves of aliens (and in particular unaccompanied alien minors (UACs)) who entered the United States illegally in 2014 and 2016 had an effect on the perceptions of voters in the last presidential election. They saw a border that was out of control, which meant that the government was failing in one of its primary responsibilities, and were not pleased.

I note in this regard that in September 2017, the website FiveThirtyEight reported that "Trump's Hardline Immigration Stance Got Him to the White House". As it stated: "In 2016 ... immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump's winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue."

The border is still an issue, and not just with Republicans. In July 2019, Gallup found that 39 percent of those polled described "the situation at the U.S. border with Mexico" as a "crisis", while 35 percent called it a "major problem". Getting 74 percent of Americans to agree on anything is difficult, and given these numbers, any movement among Democrats to scale back border security would likely lead to a backlash at the voting booth from even those Americans who are otherwise indifferent on the issue of immigration. Disorder at the border does not end there, but flows into communities across the United States — every town is touched by illegal immigration, and becomes a border town.

This leads naturally to the question of decriminalizing illegal entry. Prosecutions of illegal entrants have a deterrent effect, particularly on repeat offenders (who face long prison sentences) as Professor Jan Ting has explained. Decriminalizing illegal entry is not a boutique position among influential Democrats, however: Presidential candidate Julian Castro has indicated that he wants to repeal section 275 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) , which makes illegal entry a crime. And, as Vox noted in June 2019, "Elizabeth Warren already has endorsed repeal of the 'illegal entry' provision."

In fact, during a second night of Democratic debates in June: "Moderator Jose Diaz-Balart asked which candidates think illegal entry into the U.S. should be classified as a civil offense instead of a crime, and all but Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper raised their hands." The referenced article noted that former Vice President Joe Biden did not directly discuss decriminalization in his remarks, opting instead to "list[] his accomplishments on immigration during the Obama administration." Hickenlooper has since dropped out of the presidential race to run for Senate.

Again, Jeh Johnson offered a differing viewpoint on this issue:

[W]e cannot, as some Democratic candidates for president now propose, publicly embrace a policy to not deport those who enter or remain in this country illegally unless they commit a crime. This is tantamount to a public declaration (repeated and amplified by smugglers in Central America) that our borders are effectively open to all; this will increase the recent levels of monthly apprehensions at our Southern border — about or more than 100,000 — by multiples. For the same reason, we cannot formally decriminalize unauthorized entry into this country, though first-time illegal border crossers are in fact rarely prosecuted for that misdemeanor (except for last year's disastrous "zero-tolerance" policy). [Emphasis added.]

The manner in which "zero tolerance" was implemented was a public-relations disaster, but I agree with my colleague Mark Krikorian that the underlying policy was sound. That said, even that PR disaster does not appear to have significantly changed the minds of the public as a whole that aliens who enter illegally should be criminally prosecuted: A July 2019 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of 1,346 adults found that 66 percent deemed "[d]ecriminalizing illegal border crossings" as a "bad idea", with 27 percent calling it a "good idea", and 7 percent unsure.

Again, this suggests that decriminalization of illegal entries is not within the Overton Window as a realistic political proposal.

Localities that ignore ICE detainers are a subset of sanctuary jurisdictions, as the Center for Immigration Studies has explained:

These cities, counties, and states have laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, policies, or other practices that obstruct immigration enforcement and shield criminals from ICE — either by refusing to or prohibiting agencies from complying with ICE detainers, imposing unreasonable conditions on detainer acceptance, denying ICE access to interview incarcerated aliens, or otherwise impeding communication or information exchanges between their personnel and federal immigration officers.

Some history: The Obama administration ended the Secure Communities program and replaced it with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) in November 2014. As my colleague Jessica Vaughan explained in July 2015, PEP explicitly allowed local authorities to ignore notifications from ICE concerning removable aliens they were holding by replacing detainers with "requests for notification".

There is a significant partisan split on the issue of sanctuary cities. In March 2018, CBS News polled 1,233 adults nationwide who were asked:

"As you may know, some cities are refusing to assist the federal government in its efforts to detain or deport illegal immigrants. These are sometimes called 'sanctuary cities.' Do you think these sanctuary cities should be able to deal with immigrants as they see fit, or should these cities be forced to comply with federal immigration efforts?"

In response, 23 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Democrats, and 45 percent of independents said sanctuary cities should be allowed to deal with those immigrants as they see fit, while 74 percent of Republicans, 23 percent of Democrats, and 49 percent of Independents said sanctuary cities should be forced to comply.

Thus, it is safe to assume that tolerating sanctuary cities is within the Overton Window for Democrats but not Republicans. In a general election context, however, that becomes a toss-up, as allowing local non-compliance with immigration enforcement is within the Overton Window of at least a part of the populace as a whole.

When the real-world effects of sanctuary policies are added in, however, I would expect that window to narrow. Hence the response from those who oppose immigration enforcement to allegations of immigrant crime that "[u]nauthorized immigrants are overwhelmingly law-abiding." Whether that is true or not is a matter of debate. What is true, however, is that criminal aliens commit crimes, a fact I explained in an October 2, 2019, post:

The facts are, though, that (1) every criminal alien who can be removed from the United States is one fewer criminal who can commit an offense, and (2) criminal aliens generally commit more crimes, as a 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office revealed:

In our population study of 55,322 illegal aliens, we found that they were arrested at least a total of 459,614 times, averaging about 8 arrests per illegal alien. Nearly all had more than 1 arrest. Thirty-eight percent (about 21,000) had between 2 and 5 arrests, 32 percent (about 18,000) had between 6 and 10 arrests, and 26 percent (about 15,000) had 11 or more arrests.

I could be wrong, but for every Kate Steinle, Veronica Cabrera Ramirez, and Menachem Stark who is killed by an assailant protected by a sanctuary jurisdiction, the perceptions of the public as a whole likely shift against such policies. That likely explains the visceral reaction of the Montgomery County (Md.) County Council when critics (including me) brought up the fact that multiple sexual assaults were reported in that jurisdiction in the weeks following the rollout (with great fanfare) of one of the most restrictive sanctuary policies in the country. Such policies may be great to the casual observer in the abstract, but their concrete results will likely shatter the Overton Window, at least until the victims are forgotten.

Finally, there is healthcare for illegal aliens. Some major Democratic candidates for president (including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Corey Booker, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris) support the idea. That is likely for a good reason: According to a June 2019 CNN poll of 1,613 respondents, 66 percent of the Democrats polled said that health insurance provided by the government should be "available to undocumented immigrants living in the United States".

It was not a popular idea with the American people as a whole: 63 percent of independents and 88 percent of Republicans believe that such healthcare should not be available. In total, 59 percent of respondents disapproved of the idea. So this one may be a good primary talking point, but is likely outside of the Overton Window in a general election.

It was popular in the past for conservatives to refer to Georgetown, an enclave on the western edge of the District of Columbia, when talking about liberal political elites, and to some degree the term still has some resonance: There are still few Trump signs or MAGA hats to be found there. It is a more familiar term than "Tyson's Corner" (just as liberal in outlook but more associated with the mall there), or "Potomac" (again liberal, high-end real estate, but easily confused with the river that separates D.C. and Virginia). So I will continue the trend.

When it comes to limiting immigration enforcement, no idea seems to be outside the realm of championing in certain quarters. But many are likely outside of the Overton Window of support. Instead, they are the heated rhetoric of the Georgetown echo chamber. And, as cocktail chatter, they are fine. Their real-world consequences, however, are anything but.