Not long ago, Bernie Sanders was a heterodox immigration voice on the left. For much of his career, the socialist senator’s pro-labor principles led him to support policies rarely seen today outside the populist right. In 2007, Sanders helped to kill an immigration reform bill that he was concerned would drive down wages for lower-income Americans. During his 2016 campaign, he scoffed off the notion of unlimited “open borders” immigration as “a Koch brothers proposal.”
“I think from a moral responsibility, we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty,” he said then, “but you don’t do that by making the people in this country even poorer.” He reiterated that stance as recently as this April, telling the audience at an Iowa town hall that he was not “an advocate for open borders.”
Boy, are those days over. This primary season, Bernie has matched his Democratic opponents step-for-step in their race to the left on immigration. When the moderator at the second Democratic debate asked which of the candidates believed all undocumented immigrants should be covered under their proposed federal health-care plans, Bernie raised his hand right alongside the rest of them.
That could possibly be seen as part and parcel of his support for universal health care, as much as or more so than an immigration stance. But Sanders actually went a step further than his rivals this week, telling a group of Latino activists he would support a moratorium on all deportations if elected president.
“We are going to end the ICE raids which are terrorizing communities all across this country. We are going to impose a moratorium on deportations. And we are going to, as I mentioned—you know, there are some things a president can do with executive orders, and some things you can’t.”
If this pledge to end deportations isn’t out-and-out support of open borders, it’s as close to it as any Democratic presidential contender has ever come. The most conservative possible reading of his comments, and the only one that halfway squares it with his previous immigration stances, would be that a Sanders government will detain only those it catches in the actual act of entering the country illegally, not those who manage successfully to make their way into the country. This is far from the plainest interpretation of Sanders’ own words, deportations of those caught at the border still being, plainly, deportations.
Yet even this charitable reading would put only the tiniest hair of difference between Bernie and the open-borders agenda he has frequently mocked as a libertarian scheme or a caricature. With one breath, Sanders pledges a wild, exuberant expansion of federal programs designed to ensure that every U.S. resident enjoys a high level of economic security—free college! single-payer health care!—and with the next, he pledges not to enforce America’s immigration laws against the deluge of people around the globe who, quite understandably, would be fixing to get in on that action. It’s an incoherent, fundamentally unserious proposal.
But just because a proposal is unserious doesn’t mean the Sanders campaign doesn’t stand to benefit politically by proposing it, at least in the Democratic primary. By pivoting to open borders, the Sanders campaign likely hopes to accomplish two purposes: One on defense, one on offense.
The defensive objective is the obvious one. During his 2016 primary campaign, Bernie took plenty of heat from more intersectionally savvy Democrats about his ostensibly lackluster handling of race-related politics, as evidenced by his sometimes single-minded focus on class issues and comparatively poor showing among nonwhite voters. This time around, his campaign has taken pains to broaden its focus to push back against the stereotype of the white male “Bernie Bro,” a push that has by all accounts succeeded: a Pew poll last month found that just 49 percent of Sanders supporters were white, compared to 56 percent of Joe Biden’s supporters and 59 percent of Kamala Harris’s.
Bernie has no doubt been happy to leave that stereotype behind him this year. But it required him to abandon his immigration heterodoxy, particularly with regard to the rage against our immigration enforcement agencies that has captivated the Democratic party over the last few years. Few figures in the Trump administration have enraged leftists more than immigration policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has spent the last two years himself arguing that low-skilled immigration costs Americans jobs and wages. The very last thing Sanders needs is a “What Bernie and Stephen Miller Have In Common on Immigration” thinkpiece going up on Vox. Far safer to turn that possible weakness into a strength by striking a position immune to critique from the immigration left.
The positive objective is more subtle, and has to do with a 2020 rival Sanders has so far declined to attack directly, but who represents perhaps his most serious strategic challenge: Elizabeth Warren.
In the media narrative of 2020, Bernie and Warren are frequently lumped together as the serious true-blue progressives of the race. This is bad news for Bernie, because Warren measures up well against him in pretty much any non-policy-related area: Friendlier-seeming and more charismatic, energetic, but not in an “old man yells at cloud” sort of way, the kind of candidate who might be able, some Democrats hope, to bridge the gap between Bernie’s uncompromising leftism and Biden’s throwback liberalism.
But Warren has two possible Achilles’ heels: She was previously chummy with the same corporate donor class she has built her brand around denouncing now, and she has sometimes grown cagey and defensive when asked tough questions about her grand policy agendas. This has come through most clearly in the Democratic debates, as my colleague Jonathan Last wrote last week:
The problem is that she has a very big pitch to make, her gimmick is that she’s the one with all the straight answers, but that she’s not really talking straight.
Example: Early in the night, Stephanopoulos asked Warren if she admits that her health care plan will make taxes go up. And she simply wouldn’t do it. She talked about costs. She talked about co-pays. She flatly refused to admit the obvious truth.
You can’t hide the football on this. Not if you’re the wonk candidate. And especially not if you have another candidate with the exact same plan as you waving his arms and shouting about how “YES TAXES WILL GO UP!! NOW, GET OFF MY LAWN!”
At least as a matter of style, Bernie has shown himself to be more capable than Warren of sitting stolidly on an unpopular proposal, bad optics and all, without much squirming. By running out to her left on immigration, then, Bernie has presented her with an unsavory dilemma: Either allow him to own the space and bill himself as the ONE TRUE AND REAL progressive, or follow him out onto the branch and run the risk of appearing evasive or unsure when the inevitable blowback comes. Until Biden slips out of the pole position, Bernie’s unlikely to take any explicit shots at the Warren campaign. But this latest move is as good as.
Will it ruin him in the general? Hey, who’s got time to think about something like that?