border militarization

Texas National Guard troops block immigrants from entering a high-traffic border crossing area along Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, on December 20, 2022.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Dems’ Border Security Push Repeats the Mistakes of the Clinton-Era Crime Bill

Just like in the ‘90s, Democrats are selling out their multiracial coalition and trading perceived short-term gains for the long-term suffering of the very communities that mobilized to put them in power.

As an organizer working on death penalty issues in 1994, I watched in horror as Democrats—led by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton—caved to Republican “tough on crime” rhetoric and passed the largest law enforcement bill in U.S. history—a move now widely seen as one of the most consequential legislative setbacks in modern times for people of color.

Today, as leader of a national immigrants’ rights advocacy organization, I am again horrified as Democrats ignore the lessons of that colossal moral and policy failure and double down on a misguided political strategy to outdo Republican extremism on immigration.

Democrats would be wise to avoid their past mistakes. Instead, President Joe Biden and his Senate counterparts recently adopted Republicans’ “tough on immigration” rhetoric in a failed bid to pass a sweeping border bill that would upend long-established asylum protections and resembles some of the worst government sanctioned cruelties we saw under former President Donald Trump.

Democrats are once again showing that they are willing to sell out communities of color to look “tough.”

Fortunately, it was always clear this bill would fail a second time when Democrats put it up for a vote again in May. Still, some of its worst provisions were implemented with President Biden’s subsequent asylum executive order. The long-term consequences of the Democratic Party embracing this cruel approach for political expediency could cause lasting damage for decades.

The Clinton-era crime bill—championed in Congress by then-Senator Joe Biden—should offer Democrats a clear warning about legislating out of fear for a perceived political gain. Billed as an answer for a society grappling with addiction, poverty, and inequality, it instead devastated Black and brown communities, helping to drive mass incarceration, with no significant reduction in crime. Thirty years after the bill’s passage, policymakers across the political spectrum have disavowed the bill’s punitive approach. Many of these unlikely partners have become allies on many justice reform issues, including Trump’s First Step Act.

Like the crime bill, we know that the bipartisan border bill’s “tough” measures are not real solutions to our overwhelmed and severely outdated immigration system. We know this because the U.S. has already squandered billions of taxpayer dollars in the pursuit of deadly deterrence strategies and bolstering border enforcement. After decades of misdirecting investments into hardening the border, including four dystopian years of chaos under Trump, the data shows that this approach does not work.

While this border bill would not help solve our problems, its consequences—even of just propping it up with its accompanying anti-immigrant rhetoric—will almost certainly fall disproportionately on Black and brown people. Democrats are once again showing that they are willing to sell out communities of color to look “tough.”

Let’s not forget that Biden and Democrats won in 2020 with the largest multiracial, multigenerational coalition this country has ever seen. And yet, just like in the ‘90s, Democrats are selling out this coalition, trading perceived short-term gains for the long-term suffering of the very communities that mobilized to put them in power.

History will not be kind to such choices.

That’s why, much like the crime bill debate of the ‘90s, many diverse constituents are ringing the alarm bell on this disconnect. For instance, as the Libertarian Cato Institute has argued, “Allowing immigrants to arrive legally is [Biden’s] only chance to break out of a decade of failed immigration deals.” Similarly, business leaders concerned with worker shortages, as well as faith and civic leaders, have joined the calls for an approach that welcomes the people our communities and economy need.

Immigrants are vital to the success of our communities and shared future. There is no lack of support for a humane and orderly immigration system that welcomes people in need. What is lacking is courage and the political will to enact real solutions.

Following the collapse of the border bill earlier this year, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) lamented—apparently without irony—that “too many Republicans succumbed to the ministrations of Donald Trump” in rejecting the bill. Either way, he gloated, Democrats win.

The tragic fact is that it is Democrats who are succumbing to Trump, just as Republicans have done now for years. In that sad reality, we all lose.

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