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How one Democrat threads the needle on border security

Sen. Bob Casey won against an immigration hard-liner in a state that went for Trump. Now he has some advice for his party

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey thinks other Democrats have moved too far to the left on border security. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey thinks other Democrats have moved too far to the left on border security. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Of the 10 Democratic senators who faced 2018 re-election challenges in states won by President Donald Trump two years earlier, few were forced to defend their positions on immigration more than Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.

Casey was up against Rep. Lou Barletta, who rose to prominence on an anti-immigrant platform and spent much of the 2018 campaign trying to capitalize on Trump’s success touting enforcement and border security policies. Taking a page from the president, Barletta hammered Casey on immigration, seeking to portray him as soft on immigrant crime, in favor of so-called “sanctuary cities,” and out of touch with the concerns of Pennsylvanians.

But Barletta’s approach fell flat even in a state that Trump carried, albeit narrowly, thanks in part to his hard-line stance on immigration. Casey won, 56 percent to Barletta’s 43 percent, even as Trump demonized migrant caravans and fixated on his border security agenda in the campaign’s final days. That result has some suggesting Democrats have found a campaign formula that effectively counters Trump’s fear-mongering on immigration.

“The leading argument against us was immigration,” Casey said in a recent interview. “I think we learned some things about not only how to respond, but how to be forward-leaning about what we should do. It’s not some brilliant insight. We just have to fix the problem.”

To be sure, Casey followed some standard Democratic talking points. He toed the Democratic line on Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and from whom Trump is trying to strip deportation protections and work permits. And he advocated for the 2,600 migrant children Trump separated from their parents. The strategy worked with suburban voters, who balked at Barletta’s support for Trump.

But he also discussed the need for solutions, and took a surprising position, criticizing his own party for coming up short on them.

Casey believes Democrats have become too reactive to Trump’s immigration policies. He says most Americans — especially those in purple states — prefer solutions over resistance. He sees an opportunity for Democrats in postelection polling, which showed swing voters turned off by Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric.

“I think a lot of Americans are starting to scratch their heads,” said Casey. “They’re starting to hear Democratic messaging on it, but we’ve been more on the defensive than making a case.”

Trump’s strategy backfired when he made the 2018 elections about immigration and with his characterization of a menacing caravan of thousands of migrants approaching the southern border, said Tyler Moran of the D.C. Immigration Hub, an advocacy group that supports progressive immigration policies. Future candidates who want to win, she said, should understand that voters want bipartisan solutions, not scare tactics.

“The polling we did in Pennsylvania showed that not only did the Trump/Barletta immigration messaging not help him win, it actually cost him support,” she said.

One place to start, Casey said, is a national debate based on the 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that would have offered a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants and required the construction of 700 miles of fencing on the southwest border. It passed the Senate with 68 votes — the vast majority of them cast by Democrats — but never came up in the House.

But Casey thinks Democrats have moved too far to the left on border security, and he worries that fewer members of his party would back similar legislation in today’s political climate, where many of the border security investments included in the 2013 bill might be considered taboo under Trump.

That isn’t to say he thinks Democratic leaders should cave to the president’s current demand — $5.7 billion for the wall — without getting anything in return, like legal status for Dreamers. But he thinks Americans expect Democrats to offer their own ideas when it comes to securing the border.

“Democrats should not try to avoid a discussion about border security,” said Casey. “Some Democrats don’t seem to realize or don’t want to acknowledge it, but we voted for the strongest border security bill, maybe ever.”

An ‘allergy’ to border security?

As Republicans gleefully pointed out throughout the partial government shutdown, Democrats have a long record of supporting border security enhancements, including the construction of barriers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in a Jan. 9 floor speech, pointed out that former President Barack Obama, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York all backed a 2006 law that authorized 700 miles of fencing on the border.

“The only thing — the only thing — that has changed between then and now is the occupant of the White House. Steel fencing was fine, even salutary, when President Obama was in the White House,” McConnell said. “But it is ‘immoral’ when President Trump occupies the office. All of a sudden, Democrats have developed this new partisan allergy to the subject of border security.”

McConnell’s point has some merit. Strong border security has always served as a key component of bipartisan immigration negotiations, and the various overhaul bills supported in the 2000s by former Sens. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, each included authorization for hundreds of miles of fencing, among other investments.

Since Trump made “Build the wall!” the hallmark of his 2016 campaign, Democrats have changed their stance a bit. Most Democratic senators still backed an amendment last February that would have offered Trump $25 billion for border security over several years, including money for wall construction, in exchange for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. But short of that kind of deal — which Trump in the end rejected — support for building barriers seems like a thing of the past.

Some Democrats say Trump has only himself to blame, arguing that his xenophobic rhetoric has poisoned the well on wall negotiations.

“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” Schumer said in his rebuttal to Trump’s call for wall funding in an address to the nation on Jan. 8.

In the speech, Schumer backed improving infrastructure at ports of entry, investing in new technology that would detect drugs and undocumented immigrants at the border, and hiring more customs officers. But he said nothing about building new barriers or hiring more Border Patrol agents, and later in the month dismissed Trump’s offer to protect Dreamers in return for wall funding.

“I think the one problem with my party is that we skip over border security, and you can’t,” said Casey. “It’s got to be part of your answer to the problem.”

Democratic leaders, who have said repeatedly that they support border security measures but not Trump’s wall, have offered to back surveillance technology and increased inspections at ports of entry. They tacitly approved $1.6 billion for some barrier construction in fiscal 2018, but have yet to roll out a comprehensive border security plan.

Wooing Trump voters

The other half of Casey’s immigration strategy was to recapture the support of swing voters who abandoned Democrats in 2016 but could no longer stomach Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.

Operatives who have been on the ground in Pennsylvania — especially the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs — predicted that standing up for those affected by Trump’s crackdown would prove effective with swing voters, and they were right.

Among voters who supported both Trump and Casey, 40 percent said Barletta’s positions on immigration were a reason to vote against him, while only 26 percent said they were a reason to support him, according to a postelection poll by the Global Strategy group, which works with Democrats, that was commissioned by the D.C. Immigration Hub. Among the same voters, 52 percent said they were more concerned with Barletta’s support for Trump’s policies than they were with Casey’s support for sanctuary cities and “open borders.” Only 32 percent said the opposite.

Casey’s approach was on full display one day last May, when he was notified that an undocumented Honduran mother and son living in Pennsylvania were close to being deported even though the child may have qualified for protection in the United States. The mother said they had fled their country after witnessing the murder of a relative and being pursued by his killers.

Just after noon, Casey began pleading with Trump and his deputies on Twitter to halt the family’s deportation while the child’s case could be resolved. Throughout the day, the string of tweets grew to include more than 40 posts, bolstered by a TV appearance and letter to the White House.

“I’ve voted to double the number of border patrol agents, add 700 miles of fencing and mandate 24-hour surveillance of the border,” Casey tweeted. “What I won’t do: stand by silently as a vulnerable child and his mother are sent to their possible death.”

By the end of the day, the family was back in Honduras, and Casey’s appeals were ignored.

Casey said they “deserved better” from the administration but “got the absolute worst.”

As Democrats gear up for 2020, Casey wants them to keep his middle-of-the-road approach to immigration in mind. He believes that Trump’s enforcement policies no longer appeal to anyone except his most hardcore supporters, and most Americans don’t even support a wall. But voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin still want solutions, and Democrats should offer them.

“I’m living proof you can thread that needle,” he said.

Watch: Trump warns of another shutdown if Congress doesn’t reach a new deal by Feb. 15

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