The past week saw Democrats take up Trump’s hard-right immigration policy as their own for campaign fodder, with the liberal press’s assent. The very xenophobia that Democrats decried as “fascism” has become their policy agenda.

US president Joe Biden speaks with US Customs and Border Protection officers as he visits the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on January 8, 2023. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

There are two ways you could look at what happened on Capitol Hill this week, when Republicans voted down the hard-right border deal attached to the White House’s military aid package for Ukraine and Israel.

One is the way that most of the mainstream press, Democrats in Congress, and liberal commentariat have chosen to talk about it: as a textbook case of GOP irresponsibility and inability to govern. To be fair, there’s certainly something to the absurdity of Republicans demanding that harsh border measures be put into the aid package as a condition of voting for it, getting exactly what they wanted, then immediately refusing to vote for it anyway because Donald Trump told them not to give the president a win.

But there’s also another, more depressing way to look at it: as a major victory for Republicans and immigration restrictionists more broadly, engineering a hard rightward lurch on the border by both Democrats and the liberal press, who have adopted not just the policies but the rhetoric of what for eight years they’ve been calling incipient fascism and white supremacy. If this holds, it will be a far bigger prize than any one single bill — and a much bigger deal than the usual Republican hypocrisy in Congress.

An Anti-Immigration Nightmare

It’s hard to overstate just how bad this bill was, resembling a Stephen Miller policy wish list that combined extreme anti-immigration powers with massive funding for the country’s growing deportation-industrial complex.

The bill’s most far-reaching measure would have been to further Trump’s war on asylum, effectively shutting the country to even asylum seekers after a certain number of weekly border “encounters” had been reached, triggering what it calls “Border Emergency Authority,” delivering on President Joe Biden’s campaign vow to “shut down the border.” It also made it harder to make asylum claims, whether or not it was a time of “border emergency,” and sped up the process by which asylum seekers can be deported.

But that wasn’t all. The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein found a provision that gave the Department of Homeland Security secretary the power to unilaterally and summarily deport undocumented immigrants without review in times of border emergency. Another provision cut off even further aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the embattled refugee aid agency that is more or less the only lifeline for Palestinians facing deliberately engineered disease and famine right now.

Beyond that, it would have poured billions more money into enforcement, including $7.6 billion of extra “emergency funding” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), close to the agency’s annual budget. The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff warned that the ICE funding for deportation and detention “could fund significant crackdown, esp on single adults.”

Little wonder, then, that the bill got the enthusiastic endorsement of anti-immigration enthusiasts. Both the acting head of the US border patrol and its Trump-endorsing, Biden-bashing union endorsed the deal, while the Republican senator who helped negotiate it boasted that had it already been law, “not only would the border would be shut down today it would have been shut every single day the last four months.” The union’s pro-Trump vice president, Art Del Cueto, was similarly effusive. “Under this bill, everyone is going to get detained,” he gushed. “The processes are more strict than they are now. . . . If they don’t have a good asylum claim, they’re going to get sent back immediately without ever getting released.”

It’s also little wonder that many on the other side of the issue harshly condemned the bill. Immigration advocates called it a “disgrace” and a testament to “racism and heartlessness” that amounted to “slamming the door in the face for those with valid asylum claims.” House Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal charged that Democrats were once again giving in to “extremist views.”

Biden and the Democrats’ lurch on this issue has wrenched rightward a media and liberal establishment that once spoke about Trump’s immigration policies in stark moral terms.

But it wasn’t just progressives. California senator Alex Padilla labeled it “failed Trump-era immigration policy” and a “significant shift from prior negotiations” by the Democrats, to a Trumpesque approach that it’s been proven “does not work.” Corruption scandal–plagued New Jersey senator. Bob Menendez said it “read like an enforcement wish list from the Trump administration.” Former congressman Julián Castro, now an analyst and guest anchor on MSNBC, warned Democrats to “offer a positive vision on immigration,” because “you’re never going to be cruel enough, ‘tough’ enough, anti-immigrant enough, or able to deport your way to the negotiating table.”

The New Consensus of “Cruelty” and “Racism”

Of course, that’s not how Biden and many other leading Democrats were talking about it, in a stunning political shift from just a few years ago.

Campaigning in 2020, Biden called Trump’s attempts to gut asylum a policy of “cruelty and exclusion” and an “anti-American agenda” that “will end America’s historic role as a symbol of freedom and prosperity.” Pointing in part to Trump’s attacks on asylum, he charged that “fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism are the unabashed tenets” of his immigration policy, and that reversing this — but also going further and making it easier for desperate people to resettle — was “how we will restore the soul of our nation,” referencing Biden’s nebulous rationale for running for president.

Now, what Biden called a policy of “fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism” is actually “about securing the border” and trying to “fix a broken immigration system,” as Biden’s White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said about the border deal. They were “important reforms” that would “secure the border,” according to a White House statement. Biden started shaming the GOP for blocking the measures, saying they would “solve” the migrant influx and that “they owe it to the American people” to “do what they know to be right” — meaning, to vote for what he’d called a policy of “cruelty and exclusion.”

The president and his team reportedly see this message as his ticket to another four years, and he plans to hammer Republicans throughout this year for voting down what he once said was part of “Trump’s assault on Latino dignity.”

Or take Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, one of the three senators responsible for the border deal. Like Biden and most other Democrats, Murphy spent the Trump years loudly criticizing the former president’s hard-line policies. He called Trump’s immigration raids “an ineffective and unacceptable strategy” that creates “fear and insecurity,” sharing legal advice in both English and Spanish for what to do if ICE agents came to the door, and even introducing a bill to block ICE from showing up to certain locations, saying the raids were “despicable” and only “sowing fear and hurting families.” He once proclaimed that the United States has a “moral and legal obligations to the children and families who arrive at our borders seeking asylum.”

Now, for the past week, Murphy has been doing the rounds proudly bragging about how much of a doormat he was for hard-right immigration policy. “They told us what to do. We followed their instructions to the letter. And then they pulled the rug out from under us in twenty-four hours,” he complained. He repeatedly described the bill — which would have dealt a mortal blow to US asylum and poured untold amounts into the immigration raids he spent years loudly denouncing — as “fixing the border,” and said that voting for it would be “do[ing] the right thing.”

In both the Senate and elsewhere, Murphy now agreed with Trump that there was a “broken asylum system,” one that would only presumably be repaired by making it much harder to claim asylum or simply eliminating that legal right entirely, as his bill would have done. Like the president, Murphy now sees the issue, which has real human stakes and is a matter he used to describe as “literally life and death,” as mere cynical campaign fodder.

“Democrats should go on the offense on the border. Everywhere,” he said yesterday. “Republicans are gifting us a chance to tell the real story — Democrats are the only party serious about border reform.”

But maybe most depressing is how Biden and the Democrats’ lurch on this issue has wrenched rightward a media and liberal establishment that once spoke about Trump’s immigration policies in stark moral terms. Press outlets, even liberal ones, have adopted Biden and the Democrats’ “gotcha” framing, ignoring the party’s extreme U-turn on the issue to instead frame the story exclusively around Republican inability to govern and to “solve” the border problem.

The border deal’s failure was a sign of a “broken Congress,” said ABC News. Meet the Press’s Chuck Todd discussed the episode in purely horse-race terms, concluding that Biden’s hard-right turn wouldn’t imperil his support from the Left, while taking care to include some pablum about the United States’ history as a “nation of immigrants” and a “beacon of freedom.” “Republicans in Congress have not had their most productive week,” said NPR’s Steve Inskeep. The Democratic Party think tank Center for American Progress called the deal “a sincere, bipartisan attempt to create much needed order at the U.S.-Mexico border” and to “release pressure on the broken asylum system.”

What was for years incipient fascism has, for those same groups, overnight turned into a serious, necessary set of policies that it’s a real shame didn’t become law.

“I was actually impressed that some number of Republican senators, apparently a majority of them, was going to stand up to Trump and defy his wishes by voting for this bill,” wrote New Republic editor Michael Tomasky, who now urged Democrats to attack Republicans for not passing a suite of Trump immigration policies. Even Chris Hayes invited Murphy on his MSNBC show and said nothing about the substance of the bill (“sometime in the future, we’ll argue about what’s in it”), framing the GOP’s voting down of the deal as an attempt to “damage our country” and “make things worse in America,” and letting Murphy uncritically make the case that the bill was going to “bring some sense of order to the border” and that Democrats simply had to adopt Trump’s politics on this issue.

But maybe most shocking was seeing Al Sharpton discussing the bill with Murphy on MSNBC, asking “what is being done to get the public to really rise up in various states” to pressure Republican senators to vote for this atrocious bill. “We’re looking every day at the invasion of migrants,” he said.

Discussing the future of the Senate border bill with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy.#MorningJoe pic.twitter.com/NccLBsGi0P

— Reverend Al Sharpton (@TheRevAl) February 6, 2024

Framing the large numbers of desperate migrants showing up to the US border — most of them now coming from Venezuela and fleeing a largely Washington-engineered, yearslong economic crisis that Biden has continued — as an “invasion” was something that for years, and even only a week ago, was widely understood to be a racist piece of rhetoric literally borrowed from white supremacists. The National Immigration Forum has listed it as part of the white supremacist “Great Replacement Theory” that liberal outlets regularly (and correctly) tag the GOP with pushing, and a term that both the El Paso shooter and the man recently arrested for planning to snipe migrants at the southern border use. Apparently, it’s now also okay to beam out to the public from America’s leading pro-Democratic cable network.

A Dark New Era

It should not be this easy to forget that for many, many years, Trump’s immigration and border policies have been widely labeled as literally fascist and white supremacist. These policies were not incidental to Trump’s messaging or the fierce outrage toward him: they were a central element of his political pitch in 2016, and the leading reason that broad swaths of the press and Democratic politicians said he was a threat to democracy.

Now, what was for years incipient fascism has, for those same groups, overnight turned into a serious, necessary set of policies that it’s a real shame didn’t become law.

What all of this points to is a new, darker phase of politics in this country. For years, the Democrats at least saw a political benefit to pretending to oppose Trump’s immigration policies, sweeping their support for similar policies in the Obama and Clinton years under the rug in shame.

Now, with Trump’s “stop the steal” nonsense supplanting his immigration policies as the main sign of his danger as a leader for liberals, Democrats under Biden — including members of the press — are abandoning even this pretense, and outright embracing Trump’s radical immigration policies.

To some extent, this was foreshadowed in 2018, when former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton urged European governments to adopt far-right immigration policies in order to stop the far right from coming to power — a similar case to that which Murphy made on Hayes’s show, arguing that the Democrats could only help undocumented kids by passing this Trumpesque border deal.

If it’s this easy for what was formerly fascism to become plain, simple common sense, then you have to think that warnings about the imminent collapse of democracy and authoritarian government are going to have diminishing returns for the public going forward. And you have to wonder, what else will go from dangerous to reasonable overnight, just because the Democratic Party says so?

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