Closed Borders Were Once Bipartisan. What Changed?

Today, immigration is a divisive issue in American politics, and border policy typically reflects party affiliation. It hasn't always been that way.

Written by Hudson Crozier

The Left has shifted on immigration: Most observe today's Democratic Party as the more lenient or "liberal" side of the border policy debate against the stricter "conservative" side. However, open border policy wasn't mainstream on the Left until recent years. For decades, progressive leaders considered it necessary and fair to carefully manage the border and place limits on immigration.

Meet Cesar Chavez, Civil Rights Hero: Mexican-American progressive and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez became famous for his worker's strikes and boycotts on behalf of agriculture. In 1962, he founded what would later become the United Farm Workers (UFW) union to protect workers from exploitation.

Cesar Chavez, 1979

Chavez became one of the earliest advocates for tough immigration law as farmers repeatedly lost their jobs to undocumented immigrants who would work for less. When the border patrol wouldn't do its job, he and other union members would pitch tents along the border to defend its boundaries.

Dolores Huerta, who worked closely alongside him, later defended his law-and-order mentality: ''I can tell you as a founder of the union, we used to prepare immigration papers for people free of charge. What Cesar would say is, 'if my mother crossed the picket line, I'd be against my mother.' He was against people breaking strikes. He wasn't against the undocumented.''

Chavez often emulated the ''civil disobedience'' tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and received praise from King and his movement. ''You and your fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people,'' King once wrote to him.

Chavez was also joined in a protest by King's close colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who marched with him against illegal immigration.

Clarence B. Jones, King's adviser and lawyer, was another admirer of Chavez. He observed that the effects of illegal immigration on the labor market are most felt by struggling communities. He argued that an open border ''allows countless numbers of illegal immigrants to flood across and either take or undermine jobs done by Americans, especially brown and black Americans.''

Before Trump

Concerning immigration, the past policy and rhetoric of mainstream Democrats hardly resembles that of today's leftist establishment.

President Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address: ''We are increasing border controls by 50 percent. We are increasing inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants. And tonight, I announce I will sign an executive order to deny federal contracts to businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Let me be very clear about this: We are still a nation of immigrants; we should be proud of it. We should honor every legal immigrant here, working hard to become a new citizen. But we are also a nation of laws.''

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) in 2009: ''People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens, and illegal aliens should not be treated the same as people who entered the United States legally.''

In his first term, President Barack Obama oversaw more deportations of illegal aliens than Donald Trump. ''Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it,'' said Obama in a 2014 speech. ''Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less. All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.''

When asked in a 2015 interview about opening the border, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) argued, ''It would make everybody in America poorer. You're doing away with the concept of a nation-state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that.''

Remnant of the past

Sanders, like most other Democrats, softened his stance on border security overtime. However, he retains some of the attitudes once embraced by the Left.

At a rally for a workers' strike in December, he declared, ''If you love America, you love the workers, and if you love American workers, you don't ship their jobs to desperate people in Mexico and pay them 90 cents an hour.''

Maintaining a border has never been "right-wing"; it is nationalistic. The progressive movement of the past believed that a nation bears responsibility for the issues affecting those who rightfully occupy it.