The Democrat about to lead Arizona is too timid on immigration

Democrats need to stop responding to Republicans' extreme immigration stances with moderate positions.

Shipping containers line the U.S.-Mexico border at Coronado National Memorial in Cochise County, Ariz., on Saturday. Rebecca Noble / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Democrat Katie Hobbs, who will be sworn in as Arizona's governor next month, is right to describe outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s use of shipping containers as a makeshift border wall as evidence that Ducey favors “political stunts at the expense of taxpayer dollars.” Those protesting what’s been called a “junkyard fence” have demonstrated that it can be easily scaled, environmentalists have pointed out that it is harmful to the ecosystem, and the federal government sued Arizona on Wednesday accusing it of trespassing on federal land.

What’s required is a bolder vision that recasts immigration as a building block of what truly makes America great.

But if that’s all Hobbs does — mildly criticize her predecessor by pointing out the high cost of the stunt — then she will have blown the opportunity to move past the fearmongering politics of immigration hysteria. As recent history has shown, in their fight against Republican extremism, Democrats continue to take moderate positions. What’s required, though, is a bolder vision that rejects the Republican strategy of overhyping a threat to national security and recasts immigration as a building block of what truly makes America great.

As Ducey and other Republican governors, such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, keep manufacturing a “border crisis” in hope of transforming the United States into a united nation of angry xenophobes, Democrats should be bold enough to point to the data showing that tax-paying undocumented members of American society contribute billions to our economy. They should also reject the language Republicans use — such as “invasions” and “surges” — and talk about the real humanitarian crisis of people fleeing violence, natural disasters and political persecution.

Now’s the right time and Arizona is the right place for Democrats to stop being so timid. Ducey’s weak attempt to exploit the plight of asylum-seekers by constructing a wall of shipping containers may have been politically advantageous 12 years ago, when people such as then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and then-Gov. Jan Brewer dominated the discourse with an SB1070 “show me your papers” law, but demographics have changed, and the so-called SB1070 Generation has matured and tipped the state toward Democrats.

The recent midterm results proved that extreme immigration positions were losing positions for the GOP, especially in Arizona. Not only did Hobbs defeat the Trump-endorsed (and Trump-like) Kari Lake in the gubernatorial race, but Democrat Mark Kelly also kept his Senate seat, and the state’s voters approved a measure that would allow in-state tuition for undocumented students.

But we’ve seen nothing to suggest that Hobbs will be bold. In the same interview in which she correctly described Ducey as engaging in “political stunts,” she also accused President Joe Biden’s administration of not “doing enough” on securing the border and pushing for immigration reform. Hobbs defeated Lake by about 17,000 votes. Perhaps the governor-elect doesn’t think taking stances that humanize the migration issue will win her any political points.

But imagine if she became an example of a Democrat expressing concern about years of migrant deaths in Arizona deserts. Imagine if she argued that, instead of spending billions to keep militarizing the border, the U.S. should spend the greater share of that money to address the record backlog of immigration cases and create policies that emphasize humanity over alleged criminality.

There is no real vision from Democrats about how to deal with an issue grounded in years of prohibitive policy. Despite national polls that show that a majority of Americans want immigration at its present level or higher, Democrats on this issue have become Republican lite.    

Polls conducted before the recent midterm elections showed 68% of voters favoring permanent legal status for Dreamers and older undocumented people, with 63% of voters supporting a permanent legal status and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That suggests a national mandate, but you wouldn’t know it by Congress’ inaction.

Perhaps the governor-elect doesn’t think taking stances that humanize the migration issue will win her any political points.

At a time when Democrats should be bolder, Hobbs will most likely just follow the plan most Democrats are following: Be better than Republicans on immigration. But only slightly better. Don’t take risks. Don’t believe Arizona or other parts of the country might be ready for transformative change.

Such a strategy isn’t as bad as a shipping container stunt, but it’s just as ineffective, and that is part of the problem. Democrats don’t want to take on the issue of immigration with purpose. They would rather play into the hands of Republicans and hope they exhibit enough differences through moderate stances, even though the time to be moderate ended years ago.