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2016 is forcing immigration activists to tear up their old playbook

The politics of their issue have been completely transformed. Can they adapt?

Ethan Miller/Getty

Immigration activists have a well-established playbook. The 2016 primaries were the moment it stopped working.

For the past decade, their political strategy focused on pressuring the system from the outside — with mega rallies and high-profile protests of Republican and Democratic politicians alike.

But two things changed this season. First, there was Donald Trump. He surprised everyone with calls to force Mexico to build a wall and a ban on Muslims. But what really shocked advocates was to see the rest of the Republican field, in the words of activist Ben Monterroso, "lining up behind Mr. Trump." Even former immigration reform supporter Marco Rubio was reticent to call out Trump. The Republican Party has always had a complicated relationship with immigration reformers, but this near-total abandonment was something very new.

Second, the Democratic candidates embraced immigration enthusiastically — staking out positions to the left of President Obama and hiring former advocates to staff their campaigns.

"I think that there is a very, very visible difference between the Republican and Democratic parties," says Cristina Jiménez of the activist group United We Dream. "I'm not sure that everybody anticipated that, at least to this degree."

Immigration activists have become, in essence, a Democratic Party interest group. But it's a role they claim they never wanted to play. The "inside game" of courting and cooperating with politicians might be the bread and butter of intraparty politics — including presidential primaries. But advocates believe the "outside game" of challenging and pressuring politicians has won them the successes they've gotten so far, and they're sticking with what works.

Even if activists' strategy stays the same, though, the game has changed around them. In order for immigration advocates to be able to challenge the next president, that president will need to be a Democrat — which makes November's general election the most consequential for the movement in recent memory. They'll need to play to win.

A different world in 2008

It's hard to overstate just how different the political landscape was on immigration in 2008. At that time, comprehensive immigration reform had died twice in Congress over the previous two years — due to the opposition, at various times, of both conservative Republicans and pro-labor Democrats.

"There was not a real consensus in terms of why immigration reform was good and how to fix it," says Monterroso, the executive director of the voter mobilization group Mi Familia Vota. So the question for presidential candidates of both parties was whether they would back a similar bill.

John McCain Latino outreach
John McCain with a local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Florida.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Democrats, for the most part, were willing. But they didn't talk about the issue in front of non-Latino audiences. "In Nevada and Texas and California, where this issue came up, those were the only times they talked about it," says Frank Sharry of the Washington, DC-based advocacy group America's Voice.

And when they were asked about it in non-Latino contexts, they stumbled — like when (in Sharry's words) "Hillary got tripped up by Tim Russert on driver's licenses" for unauthorized immigrants. She waffled painfully in her reply, and finally answered that, no, states shouldn't permit them.

Back then, "we were happy that (Democrats) were for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship," says Sharry. He adds, in a tone of fake awe: "Oh, wow!"

There was less consensus in the Republican Party — John McCain, of course, disavowed his support for a comprehensive reform bill before winning the primary. But "there was respect in the way that they were treating the community," says Monterroso. "There were attempts to reach out to the community from both parties."

Monterroso and others expected that at least some Republicans would be interested in continuing that effort. "I had a lot of expectations and hope, to be honest with you, after 2012," he says.

With good reason. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, Mitt Romney said the biggest failure of his campaign was Latino outreach. The Republican National Committee, in its 2013 "autopsy" report, declared that the party had to get on board with immigration reform to win back Latino voters.

The Republican response to Trump is even more horrifying than Trump himself

"In 2012, I believe the two political parties realized the Latino vote is the decisive route to the White House," says Monterroso. "The difference here [in 2016], in my opinion, is one political party decided to embrace and work with the Latino community, and the other group decided to kind of scare and discourage us from participation."

Monterroso says the "frontal attacks" on immigrants and Latinos that have characterized the Trump campaign are unprecedented on the national level. (The only comparisons he can find are at the state level: California Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign against unauthorized immigrants in 1994, and the rhetoric of Gov. Jan Brewer and other Arizona Republicans in 2010.)

"In any election that I have participated in, there has never been a disrespect in the way that the Latino community has been taken into account," he says. "There has not been an understanding on some of the issues, but attacking the community in the way that it has been attacked at this particular point — and having a political party and the rest of the leadership keeping quiet — hasn't happened."

Trump Rubio Cruz debate
Donald Trump talks, and everyone else shuts up.
Scott Olson/Getty

The most disappointing thing to advocates has been the failure of other major Republican candidates to challenge Trump.

"You're seeing the two Latino candidates, Rubio and Cruz, almost competing to be tougher" on immigration, says United We Dream's Jiménez. And "you don't hear Mr. Bush talking in Spanish anymore, not being so proud how he was at the beginning," Monterroso adds.

Activists thought they'd have to put more pressure on Democrats

The Latino vote has been important to Democrats for the past few election cycles. But — with the notable exception of Martin O'Malley — 2016's Democratic field didn't have stellar records on the issue.

Clinton hadn't had to talk about immigration since the driver's license flop in the 2008 race. And when she'd tried, during her 2014 book tour, she'd made what Sharry diplomatically refers to as "missteps" by calling for Central American children to be sent back to their home countries. "And we knew that Bernie didn't have a strong feel on the issue and had voted against reform in 2007," Sharry continues.

The policy ask was clear. "In 2008, the debate was really about, 'Are you for legislative reform?'" says Sharry. "In 2016, it's about, 'Since immigration reform depends on Republicans who are untrustworthy, what else can you do? What else will you do?'"

But immigration advocates have barely encountered resistance from Democrats. Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley have all committed not just to preserving Obama's executive actions (or finding alternative ways to protect immigrants if the Supreme Court strikes them down) but to going further.

"We have won the argument on enforcement," says Sharry. "That they were overzealous in their enforcement and that a shift in priorities followed up by work permits for those that are low-priority is now the accepted Democratic position. That is a huge shift from 2008."

"To the extent that we had a goal for the primary," he says, "it was to get all three candidates to adopt good progressive positions. And we feel pretty good about that!"

Hillary Clinton shakes hands with a young immigrant at a roundtable in Las Vegas in May 2015, in one of the first appearances of her campaign.
The moment Hillary Clinton won over many immigration activists.
Ethan Miller/Getty

What's most encouraging to advocates isn't the positions the candidates have taken but how much they've included immigration — and immigrants themselves — in their campaigns.

"Hillary Clinton started her campaign by sitting down with DREAMers, in May of last year," says Monterroso — and it made a tremendous impression on advocates. So did her hiring of Lorella Praeli, a former United We Dream staffer.

Later last year, for his part, Bernie Sanders "hired Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola and Arturo Carmona, people with standing in our movement," says Sharry. "They helped shape a much more progressive and specific agenda on immigration reform."

This hasn't happened in the past, at least to this extent. In fact, it's been one of the complaints that Latino campaign operatives have had about Democratic and Republican campaigns alike. "Hiring people that have struggled with the fight of immigration reform — that, to me, is an embracing of the issue," says Monterroso. "I don't think in 2008 there was that embracing of the issue." But there certainly is now.

Immigration advocates aren't equipped to compete in the invisible primary

Advocates found they were wholly irrelevant in the Republican primary and much courted in the Democratic one. In other words, they found that they'd become, at least functionally, a Democratic Party interest group.

But that's not the way they see themselves. "Our allegiance is not to any of the parties," says Jimenez. "We have seen very clearly how both parties have played this game."

Even now, Sharry maintains, the long game isn't to elect Democrats. It's that "Republicans are going to have to be so afraid that they ultimately come around, or they're going to be so bad that they lose their majority in both chambers of Congress as well as the White House." The fact that the latter looks more likely than the former right now doesn't change the advocates' self-conception: They stand outside both parties.

That means that they're not well-equipped to compete in the "invisible primary" — the jockeying for favor that candidates do with party elites. "Our goal moving into the electoral cycle definitely was not siding with a particular candidate," says Jiménez. "We're not going to endorse a particular candidate," Sharry says of America's Voice. "And I think that's true of many of the organizations."

"Now, you can say, well, if you're going to have a mature movement you need to get there," he continues. But to his mind, the differences among the remaining Democratic candidates are "pretty modest ... all three candidates have a very strong progressive position," he says.

Did immigration advocates miss a chance to draw contrasts among Democrats?

o'malley FISH THIS BIG
If you stacked up all of Martin O'Malley's immigration accomplishments, the pile would be as tall as he is.
Joe Raedle/Getty

This attitude is particularly frustrating to the O'Malley campaign — for which immigration was supposed to be one of the issues where they could most clearly draw a contrast with the rest of the field.

As governor of Maryland, O'Malley made a point of standing with immigrant rights groups. He pushed for a state referendum to grant in-state tuition to unauthorized students. He picked a fight with the White House in 2014 over the treatment of Central American children and families, and he made a point of offering social services to refugee families resettled in the state.

"I felt bad for Martin O'Malley, who based his whole campaign on running to the left" on immigration as well as other issues, says Sharry. "But (Clinton) has closed down that space. As has Bernie. So give O'Malley credit for getting to the top of the hill first, but they got to the top of the hill not long after, and I consider that a movement victory."

In the eyes of the movement, the progressive positions of the candidates, including O'Malley, reflect activists' success. "You've even seen, like, a competition between some of the Democratic candidates, O'Malley and Sanders, even going further out than Hillary in speaking out against the criminalization of immigrants, calling out against the closing of detention centers, ending family detention. ... All of that speaks to the power we've been able to build," says Jiménez.

But the movement isn't spurring on O'Malley and Sanders by drawing contrasts between the candidates. And without that skill, they weren't able to use O'Malley's record as leverage to improve Sanders and Clinton's positions earlier in the campaign.

"A candidate you didn't need to protest to get there?" one critic of activist groups' strategies says of O'Malley. "They didn't know what to do."

Advocates can pressure a Democratic president. They can't pressure a Republican one.

In one important regard, immigration advocates are very well-equipped to extract meaningful promises from presidential candidates in 2016: The things they're asking for are things the president doesn't need Congress to do. "We now have the president's executive orders, which gives very clear understanding to the presidents to come whether they're going to support it or not," says Monterroso.

So far, Clinton (and, for that matter, Sanders) has promised to do more than Obama did. But there's already something of an assumption among advocates that, especially if Clinton is elected, they'll have to pressure her from the outside as well. It's what they know.

Latino immigration protesters

But if the next occupant of the White House isn't a Democrat, they're in trouble. Not only will they not have leverage with a Republican president, but, Jiménez says, "we'll have to advocate and organize to protect our community against these commitments that they have made in their campaigns."

That makes the 2016 general election tremendously important.

Most advocates are hopeful that seeing such a strong contrast between the parties so early in the campaign will motivate people to vote. "I have never seen a primary that has gotten the attention and enthusiasm of the community for following politics" to the extent 2016 has, says Ben Monterroso. "What has resulted is more people participating and more people understanding which political party is more near to the issues we care about."

There's anecdotal evidence that what Monterroso describes as Republican "discouragement" is having the opposite effect — that many Latino green card holders are becoming US citizens so they can vote against Donald Trump, for example. But the stakes are tremendously high.

"What's scary," Monterroso says, "is that they didn't realize that after the election, the Latino community is not only going to be the decisive vote, but is gonna be a community that is going to be part of the America that they need to be governing. And they have not paid attention to us."