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Demonizing immigrants isn't a winning strategy for Dems or democracy

America isn't Long Island

Yesterday on Long Island, ex-Democratic congressman Tom Suozzi handily defeated his Republican opponent to win the seat vacated, ignominiously, by one George “Zabrovsky” Santos. The win, which came despite Republican attempts to literally plow their way to victory (and I implore you to click that link — a GOP Super PAC literally hired private snowplows to clear streets in key Republican precincts in hopes of getting more of their voters to the polls in the middle of a freak blizzard), is being held up by centrist outlets as a model for Democrats to follow in November.

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“The strategy went something like this,” the New York Times opined today in an “analysis” story slotted into the news section. “Challenge Republicans on issues that they usually monopolize, like crime, taxes and, above all, immigration. Flash an independent streak. And fire up the Democratic base with attacks — in this case, nearly $10 million in ads — on the abortion issue and former President Donald J. Trump, the likely Republican nominee for the White House.”

By “immigration,” the Times — and Suozzi for that matter — mean fearmongering about “the border crisis,” in the person of migrants sheltered in cities like New York. Specifically, they cited a campaign stunt in which Suozzi, learning that his opponent was about to hold a press conference at a migrant shelter in neighboring Queens, raced there to hold a conference of his own. According to press accounts, Pilip “blasted the migrant site, claiming it brought drugs and alcohol to the neighborhood.” Instead of pushing back on those claims (Perhaps: Immigrants are bringing alcohol to a city that has at least 11,961 active liquor licenses? What is this, 1924?) Suozzi blamed Republican dysfunction for failing to, as he termed it elsewhere, “secure our border.”

“[Suozzi] sounded like a Republican, talking about the border and immigration,” Republican Speaker Mike Johnson is quoted by the Times as saying today. “Because, everybody knows, that’s the top issue.” In case any of that was unclear, the Times headlined their story: “Leaning Into Migrant Woes, Suozzi Paves Election-Year Path for Democrats.

I disagree. I think overreading the result in one—as you’ll see—extremely weird race in an increasingly reactionary suburban district would be a fatal mistake, not just electorally, but on a societal level. In short: You can’t beat the MAGA Republicans in a fight over who will demonize immigrants more. And ceding that ideological ground to them will do far more harm than good in both the short and long runs.

Let’s talk about this race really fast. If you’re interested in the weirdness of New York’s third congressional district, I recommend the reporting of Long Island’s own Marisa Kabas, who summed it up today in her newsletter, The Handbasket. In short, in their scramble after George Santos’ world-historical flameout, local Republicans tapped Nassau County legislator Mazi Pilip, an Ethiopian-born Orthodox Jew who did a stint as a gunsmith in the Israel Defense Forces. The GOP’s entire thought process seemed to be that, two months after Oct. 7 and amid Israel’s war on Gaza, Long Islanders in a disproportionately Jewish district would see a Black female IDF veteran, check the box, and move on.

What they were not counting on — beyond the base stupidity of that supposition — was that Pilip was a uniquely incompetent candidate. (Say what you will about Santos, the man could entertain a crowd.) She had little name recognition, did little press, and, as Kabas says, “couldn’t present a single coherent policy plan.” She made semi-national news at the lone debate, when she insisted that she was “pro-life,” but that “every woman should have that choice” to get an abortion. When Suozzi asked if that meant she was “pro-choice” (because it quite literally does), she flipped out, shouting: "I'm Mazi Pilip! I am pro-life! This is me!" Pilip also refused to embrace Trump on the campaign trail, much to his chagrin. And she is still, confusingly, a registered Democrat.

Suozzi, meanwhile, ran as much against fellow Democrats as he did against Trump. He vowed to “battle” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whose district, which also includes the Bronx, borders his in northeastern Queens) in Congress, and showed no daylight between himself and Pilip on Gaza, saying “I am unequivocally pro-Israel,” deriding critics of the war as antisemites, and in fact accusing his opponent of endangering the Jewish state.

On immigration, NY-3 is a sui generis mix — home to many varieties of “white ethnics” who are proud of their own families’ immigrant heritage but suspicious of newcomers. Pilip tried to highlight her background as an Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant who came “the right way,” but there was not much daylight there either; Suozzi’s father was born in Southern Italy, and his mother was of partially Irish descent, a mix that seems to have appealed more to a district that is 66% non-Hispanic white and just 2.8% Black. Those dynamics just aren’t going to exist everywhere; the number of districts where a white Democrat might find himself outflanking a Republican-of-color on immigration and Israel are going to be vanishingly few, especially after Tuesday’s result.

The bigger problem facing Democrats who try to copy Suozzi’s strategy is that Republicans, as Johnson indicated, are gearing up for a general election that is going to be even more aggressively xenophobic — if not outright fascist — than Trump’s previous two. Trump is promising to implement the “Largest Domestic Deportation Operation in History,” as he recently called it on Truth Social.

His chief immigration advisor, the exorable Stephen Miller, has promised to deport as many as 10 million “foreign-national invaders” in a rapid nationwide sweep. As Ronald Brownstein reported in the Atlantic this month, this would involve the deputizing of hundreds of thousands of National Guard troops across the country, as well as the construction of new, larger concentration camps in Texas, with “near-constant flights returning migrants to their home countries” from there.

This will inevitably not target only undocumented immigrants or people whose naturalization status remains uncertain. As Brownstein writes:

… any mass-deportation program would naturally focus on the largely minority areas of big Democratic-leaning cities where many undocumented immigrants have settled, such as Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, New York, and Phoenix.

“What this means is that the communities that are heavily Hispanic or Black, those marginalized communities are going to be living in absolute fear of a knock on the door, whether or not they are themselves undocumented,” David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me. “What he’s describing is a terrifying police state, the pretext of which is immigration.”

That’s my italics for emphasis there: It is almost certain that Trump and his crew mean any mass action against immigrants — a mobilization that, as Biden’s former Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief of staff notes, would necessarily mean a “mobilization the size of a military deployment” — is a pretext for further action. Trump has further pledged as president to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” saying: “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream,” and that “the threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within.”

The fascist overtones of that quote from a November speech in Claremont, New Hampshire, were of course unmissable — after years of avoiding anything approaching the fascist label, even the normally tame Washington Post made direct comparisons to the speeches of Adolf Hitler. But not enough people are making a direct connection, in their minds or the coverage, between Trump’s rhetoric against his political enemies and his planned reprisals against those he and his base consider undesirable immigrants.

For immigrants, he and Miller are talking about activating hundreds of thousands of National Guard units from “red states," including sending them on deportation missions into Democratic-run states and cities who oppose such actions. But he has also talked elsewhere about sending the National Guard into cities “to restore order and secure the peace without having to wait for the approval of some governor that thinks it's politically incorrect to call them in.” And he has talked about rounding up homeless people, and moving them to “tent cities” on “large parcels of inexpensive land” outside of urban areas. I feel like I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I will anyway: These are all describing the same thing: Loyal units of the National Guard and other law-enforcement agencies prowling cities, rounding up enemies and other undesirables, and in at least two cases carting them away to camps for further processing.

This is, to put it mildly, a potential nightmare. And whatever centrists like Suozzi or the editors of the New York Times think they’re doing by demonizing immigrants as purveyors of filth, crime, drugs, and other problems they are only feeding into an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that they are in no position to control and that will, if implemented and in the final analysis, end up coming for them as well.

Correction 2/15/24: This post initially attributed a Pilip quote to Suozzi.

ICMYI, don’t miss my first entry in Flaming Hydra, the writer-owned group newsletter to which I’ll be contributing every month. (CW: This first post contains swears.)

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