By Todd Bensman on February 19, 2023
The Washington Times, February 19, 2023
When the American people elected Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, my job suddenly changed. Overnight, I was required to fear, prepare for, and prevent the assassination of Texas Governor Greg Abbott and a coming bloodbath in downtown Austin.
The threats emanated from a new front about which I knew almost nothing: the ultra-violent “anti-fascist action” movement most commonly known today by its contraction, “antifa.”
The Washington inauguration of Trump spawned widespread antifa riots beyond the security perimeter. Rioters burned cars, smashed store windows, took control of street blocks, and attacked officers trying to stop it. The melee went on for hours. Police pounded the rioters with stun grenades, tear gas, and bean bag projectiles. Six officers were injured. As Trump walked along part of the parade route toward a group of black-clad demonstrators, the Secret Service hustled him back into his armored vehicle. It took riot police hours to regain the streets with brute force, arresting more than 200.
What we had seen in Austin up to that point was a small taste of more to come. As I’ve mentioned, a searing animus about the candidate’s immigration agenda, in chants, waving Mexican flags, and some of the placards, fueled the violence against the earliest Trump rallies. After the election, that catalyzing energy went into the “Occupy ICE” national protest campaign. Militants set up tent camps near ICE properties throughout Texas and set about trying to disrupt the detentions and deportations of illegal immigrants. At the same time a fiery propaganda campaign began to demonize ICE agents. Credible threats to their lives led to an immigration-related phase of our intelligence work, which continued for me until I left government service in August 2018.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, these positions had never spread as far and fast on the far left as they did during this time. The contemporary Democratic Party has always loathed illegal immigration, its leading voices the greatest standard bearers of border and immigration policies that would qualify as outright Trumpian.
Consider the Democratic Party labor leader hero Cesar Chavez of United Farm Workers (UFW) union fame, whose legacy is so cherished among the party elite that President Biden positioned a bronze bust of Chavez on his Oval Office desk alongside family photos. Surprisingly, the renowned champion of agricultural laborers was furiously anti-immigrant. In fact, he mounted his famous boycotts of grapes and lettuce to counteract the federal government’s refusal to stop illegal immigration. Powerful agricultural interests wanted the cheap labor of illegal workers. But Chavez saw that they drove down wages and undermined his strikes on behalf of legal workers. Chavez went even further by opposing legal immigration through the 1942-1964 Bracero Program, the World War II-era worker permit initiative used to keep agriculture production going while American men fought overseas.
Chavez reserved special ire for illegal Mexican migrant workers, whom he routinely called by the charged, derogatory term “wetbacks.” In 1974, Chavez went so far as to dispatch 300 thugs to establish a “wet line” near Yuma, Arizona. The vigilantes organized into patrols to intercept migrant workers and “persuade them to turn back.” But the patrols quickly turned violent. They beat at least thirty-seven migrants as they crossed the border to discourage others from breaking a lemon-pickers strike that year. The UFW also bribed Mexican officials in San Luis to stop border crossers on their side.
“There’s an awful lot of illegals coming in,” Chavez said in a 1974 interview. “They’re coming in by the thousands. It’s just unbelievable. It’s a vicious attack on the local worker. The workers themselves, even though a lot of them are Mexican descendants are very upset and very worried and very mad about the illegals coming to break their strike. It takes away their jobs and livelihood and so on.”
Other leftist icons took similar hard lines. In 1990, Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, joined civil rights leaders to stop a congressional attempt with the pro-illegal immigration National Council of La Raza to legalize hiring illegal immigrants. It worked. In the mid-1990s, the iconic civil rights trailblazer Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to Congress from the South, headed a presidential commission that called for strict enforcement of immigration laws and a reduction in legal immigration. Jordan later proved tireless in arguing for tight border controls as a means to end illegal immigration.
Even the progressive Democratic icon Bernie Sanders, the most recent hero of hard-left America, mirrored the 1970s sentiments of Chavez up until 2015. It’s almost striking today to note that no meaningful distinction exists between what Sanders believed, circa 2015, and Trump’s “America First” notions about protecting working-class people from illegal immigrants. No one ever called the Jewish socialist a racist for his belief that unskilled illegal immigrants drove down the wages of working-class Americans. In a July 2015 interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sanders characterized “open borders” policies as “a right-wing proposal” championed by corporations hooked on cheap foreign labor.
Like me and former President Obama, Sanders also saw illegal immigration as threatening American sovereignty.
“You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that,” Sanders told Klein when asked if he supported open borders immigration. “If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation, in my view, to do everything we can to help poor people.”
Yet in 2019 and 2020, in a stunning turn, every Democratic presidential candidate came off like Occupy ICE activists living in tents. All fifteen of them tried to one-up each other as to who was most willing to end the most deportations and be the quickest to shut down detention centers, who would go the hardest to curtail ICE, and who would most enthusiastically expand the abuse of asylum laws, who would deny with the most vigor that most border-jumpers were coming for jobs and not fleeing murderous government persecution. Suddenly, extreme ideas long rejected by the Democratic Party mainstream were center stage orthodoxy.
So, what the hell happened? What were these ideas and their wellspring? And how did they become the putative new law of the land?
“Trump changed the world,” explained Thomas Cartwright, a volunteer social justice activist for the pro-immigration group Witness at the Border in an interview with me. “When you have something so extreme on one side the reaction becomes extreme. And so I think people who are driven to say, ‘we can’t stomach that and so, therefore we’re going to go all the way over here,’ there’s no question that happened, me being in the middle of that fight.
“Even if people want to moderate a bit, there’s no willingness to step back to a more moderate position,” Cartwright told me. “Nobody’s going to move on the left. It’s like this standoff.”
This newly energized species of progressive leftists suddenly demanded, and virtually every mainstream Democratic Party candidate promised, policies that could only result in unimpeded immigration over the border with no resistance, negative consequence, or limit. Under this new design, anyone from anywhere in the world who wanted to come could get in and stay forever and with no fear of deportation. Boiled down, this new political leftist bloc was finding significant political purchase for the following demands, which I have somewhat generalized for easier comprehension:
- Decriminalize illegal border entry, which Bill Clinton’s 1996 reform law regarded as a federal misdemeanor carrying up to six months in prison and progressively more for subsequent offenses.
- End deportations of every stripe, minus terrorism or the most extreme criminality, not only for new border-crossers but also for the estimated eleven million foreign nationals living illegally inside the United States.
- Build no physical barriers like walls that might impede pedestrian foot traffic over the border and demilitarize law enforcement surveillance of the frontier.
- Abolish ICE by reformatting it for some other duty not involving deportation.
- Close the ICE detention facilities and cancel government contracts for the network of private ones enabling detention and deportation, since these will no longer be needed.
- End permission requirements for new arrivals to work and otherwise fully participate in the economy and public welfare systems.
- Provide legal pathways to citizenship for those who illegally entered and remained illegally in the country.
- Solve the root causes of immigration by rebuilding origin countries in Central America.
Democratic primary candidate Joe Biden was no exception by 2019. It’s hard to overstate what a stark departure Biden’s new views represented from his very recent views on the subject. While he would not say anything so radical as “abolish ICE” out loud, he dog-whistled it.
During the debates, he telegraphed that he saw no need for detention centers and indicated he would do whatever was necessary to open the one-way superhighway to the asylum system and add some lanes.
“Look, we should not be locking people up,” Biden the candidate said during a June 27, 2019, internationally televised debate. Those who come seeking asylum we should immediately have the capacity to absorb them, and keep them safe until they can be heard.”
And the new Joe Biden now thought the old 2006 Joe Biden wrong on building walls since now all of a sudden “a wall is not a serious deterrent.”
Few of the new Biden immigration aides and advisers came from the usual policy think tanks from which new presidents typically draw advisors and political appointees. Most hailed from advocacy organizations that openly favored policies to dismantle the American immigration enforcement system and open the border to the world. Collectively, the advisors who entered the White House comprised a who’s who of [Jonathan] Haidt’s “tribal moral community.”
They had spent professional lives advocating for prescriptions that could only lead to mass migration over the border. They subscribed to building the grand narrative of illegal immigrants as the new victim group worthy of civil rights campaigning. They were as pious about their beliefs as any theologian. They presumed all economic migrants to be endangered political refugees and asylum seekers. They believed the United States had no right to refuse entry to people crossing its border. They believed that foreign nationals who crossed a border illegally were no different from legal migrants who’d cleared required hoops and paid their dues. They believed immigration enforcement to be cruel and therefore ignorable. All insisted on entirely trading enforcement for the disproven experiment of rebuilding troubled nations so their citizens would want to stay home.
Over the next year, some or all of the president’s immigration men and women would play some part in 296 executive actions on immigration before political pragmatists inside the White House, seeing political liability in the massive onslaught their policies wrought at the border, began to rein them in.
Handing over border security to the most fervent theologians of a fringe political religion immediately led to lasting, severe consequences for the nation. What they wanted and fought for with the greatest fervor was a return of the American asylum system set at its widest possible aperture. Why? Because they well knew that the American asylum system is the main ingredient for mass migration.