RFK, Jr. Ignites the Question: Is There Still a Democratic Constituency for Controlled Immigration?
FAIR Take | May 2023
Once upon a time Democrats believed in, or at least paid lip service to, secure borders and ending illegal immigration.
In his 1995 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton asserted, “All Americans, not only in states most heavily affected, but every place else in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.” And yes, he said “illegal aliens,” not undocumented or irregular, or some other euphemism. That portion of his speech drew a round of applause from both sides of the aisle. As recently as last September, the former president told CNN that “there is a limit” to how many migrants the country can absorb and that lots of economic migrants are “gaming” our political asylum system.
In 2005, then-Senator Barack Obama (and presidential hopeful) was similarly blunt. “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants in this country,” he said.
Their records may not have matched their rhetoric – particularly with respect to Obama – when it came to stopping illegal immigration, but they acknowledged the harm it causes and the legitimate concerns of the American people. In recent years, however, even the assertion that illegal immigration is harmful and should be halted has become taboo for Democratic politicians. The Biden administration has presided over the systematic dismantling of immigration and border enforcement, while Democratic-run states and localities continue to dream up new ways to protect and bestow benefits on illegal aliens.
It may seem as though the concept of immigration enforcement is dead in the Democratic Party. But is it? Enter Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a long-shot candidate who is challenging a reeling Joe Biden for the 2024 presidential nomination. In one of his opening salvos, Kennedy seemed to invoke the more sober reasoning of Democrats-past. “America should be a haven of freedom and prosperity, open to law-abiding migrants who will contribute to our society. However, immigration must proceed in an orderly, lawful manner. Right now we have chaos at the border. Human trafficking, criminality, intolerable stress on border states like Texas. It is a humanitarian nightmare,” he tweeted.
Kennedy’s statements were precipitated by the mass murder of a family in Cleveland, Texas, whose alleged killer is an illegal alien who had been deported multiple times in the past. “It is not anti-immigrant bigotry to demand an immigration system that keeps out criminals. In fact, letting them in stokes bigotry. As President, I will enforce a secure border, and I will expand the kind of LEGAL immigration that made our country great,” he continued.
Barely three weeks into his campaign, more than one in five Democrats favor Kennedy as their party’s 2024 nominee. Sure, it helps that your name is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and that 51 percent of registered Democrats (and 70 percent of voters overall) don’t even think Joe Biden should be running again. Immigration is one of the issues that is dragging down the president’s approval ratings. A scant 37 percent of voters approve of his handling of immigration policy, compared with 56 percent who disapprove. Those numbers could turn considerably worse if the situation at the border further deteriorates when Biden ends Title 42 next week.
While there will likely remain significant differences between the two parties on immigration (and many other issues), it is reasonable to believe that there is a broad bipartisan constituency for ending chaos at our border and the trafficking, exploitation and crippling burdens that come with it. It will be interesting to observe whether a challenger from within his own party can finally force the president to at least moderate the radical and unpopular immigration policies he pursued since taking office.