Extreme reactions to immigration have been a staple of American politics since almost the very beginning of our Republic. That’s true even though we are now and have always been a nation of them — both the willing and the unwilling.

In the mid-19th century, the American Party — or as they were better (and more accurately) known, the Know-Nothings — were not only anti-immigrant, but anti-Catholic. After the Civil War, that ideology manifested in the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that was active not just in the South but also right here in Maine. The Klan was an influential force in Maine politics, not only helping to propel Owen Brewster into the Blaine House but also making sure Portland didn’t have an elected mayor for most of the 20th century.

Later in the 20th century, anti-immigrant sentiment manifested itself in populist conservatives from Pat Buchanan on through to Donald Trump. Although Trump has at least managed to correctly focus most of his ire on illegal immigration, rather than all immigration as earlier politicians (and some of his ardent supporters today) have, it’s been a driving focus of both his campaign and his presidency. In that, he’s continuing a long tradition of preying on the fears of white, middle-class workers who worry they could lose their jobs to new immigrants. Indeed, this has been so pervasive throughout American history, often regardless of skin color, that the ancestors of many of those now worried about immigration may well have faced anti-immigrant sentiment themselves.

Trump’s emphasis on illegal immigration not only distracts from the very real challenges facing this economy, but it freezes the debate in place. Though he hasn’t succeeded in making much progress in Congress on immigration, he has succeeded in making most Republicans afraid to speak up about the issue at all. Before he came into office, there were a series of concerted, bipartisan efforts to enact meaningful immigration reforms over the years. Most of them either ended up fizzling out or being so watered-down that they failed to accomplish much, but at least they were valiant attempts. These days, neither side is much interested in doing any real problem-solving, preferring to use the issue to their political benefit without even trying to accomplish anything.

This mindset has also been evident so far throughout the Democratic presidential primaries, where instead of offering real ideas of their own on the issue, Democrats have spent most of their time attacking Trump. While it’s understandable that they’d take this approach on such a controversial issue in reaction to a divisive opponent, it doesn’t really move forward any rational discussion of the issue. Whether they’re offering completely impractical proposals that will never have any chance of passing Congress or pledging to take executive action on their own, they’re completely ignoring not only the other party but moderate voters of all partisan stripes.

This reaction, while it might work in a primary, could ultimately end up helping Trump get re-elected. Indeed, this is one of Trump’s political strengths: baiting his opponents into taking extreme positions. This works on multiple levels for him, as it not only energizes his supporters, but it pushes centrist voters who only lean in his direction farther into his camp. That includes union voters, many of whom voted for Trump in 2016 despite being loyal Democratic voters for decades. If Democrats want to win them back, it won’t be by embracing the open-borders agenda of the far left.

Rather than propping up their own radicals, Democrats should be moving towards the center. They should work to build consensus towards a complete reform of the entire immigration system. That would include a variety of common-sense changes — like allowing asylum-seekers to work when they first arrive, so they’re not all steered towards public assistance instead. It would also involve a combination of increasing enforcement of current laws and making legal immigration easier for those who are trying to come here the right way.

There may well be a bipartisan consensus for this sort of hysterics-free approach to immigration. The country faces a labor shortage, and business leaders on both sides of the aisle support allowing more skilled workers to immigrate. If we can improve the system to allow that to happen, while making sure we keep the country safe, it would be a real solution that could actually help us all — even if it doesn’t grab the headlines or fit neatly in a campaign ad.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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