Beto O’Rourke isn’t known for his wonkish heft. But in his formal announcement for president on Sunday, the former Texas congressman offered one of the most important policy proposals of the nascent presidential campaign: He argued that to solve America’s problems at the border, America’s leaders must “help people in Central America where they are.” In so doing, he began laying a foundation to effectively rebut Donald Trump on his signature issue: immigration.
Every major Democratic presidential candidate decries Trump’s actions at the border. In her announcement speech, Kamala Harris called his policy of putting “children in cages” a “human-rights abuse,” and his proposed border wall a “medieval vanity project.” In hers, Elizabeth Warren said that under Trump, America’s “immigration system … lacks a conscience.” Amy Klobuchar used her announcement to demand “comprehensive immigration reform.” In his, Bernie Sanders called for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States and “a humane border policy for those who seek asylum.”
O’Rourke’s competitors are right to demand a fairer and more humane system for evaluating asylum claims. But an improved asylum system won’t reduce the number of people fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” To the contrary, the better chance migrants have of gaining asylum, the more likely they are to seek it.
All of which plays into Trump’s hands. His core argument is that only by treating asylum seekers brutally—making it harder for them to apply, raising the standard of proof for their claims, and even separating them from their children—can the United States deter them from coming. By chastising Trump for his brutality without offering their own strategy for reducing migration, Democrats are walking into a trap. They’re allowing him to frame the immigration debate as a choice between harsh policies that stop Central American migration and humane policies that encourage it. [Continue reading…]