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Democrats have been mostly unified against President Trump's border wall. But on more nuanced immigration issues, it hasn't always been that simple. Some immigrant advocates called President Obama the deporter in chief for his policies. And while Republicans have moved to the right on immigration, the Democrats' base has moved left, exposing a new rift in that party. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: To understand how much the Democratic Party has shifted on immigration, check out this statistic from the Pew Research Center. In 1994, a third of Democrats said immigrants strengthen our country. Today that number is over 80 percent. Bill Clinton, as part of his overall law and order agenda, sought to crack down on illegal immigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF 1996 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
BILL CLINTON: After years of neglect, this administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders.
KHALID: This is his 1996 State of the Union address.
(SOUNDBITE OF 1996 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
CLINTON: 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.
KHALID: But around the year 2000, key constituencies within the Democratic Party began to change their tune on immigrants. The NAACP began to see immigration as a civil rights issue rather than as a jobs problem. And the AFL-CIO started to see immigrant labor as a growing base of their membership rather than only a threat to American workers. But labor's concerns lingered.
Frank Sharry, a longtime pro-immigration activist, points to 2007, when a majority of Democrats supported a bipartisan immigration bill. But two progressives now mulling a 2020 presidential run did not.
FRANK SHARRY: Sherrod Brown, he thought that this - you know, if we legalized and expanded the admission of immigrants, it might affect American workers in a way that his state's workers would suffer. Bernie Sanders also voted against it.
KHALID: Staff for both Brown and Sanders say the senators, in 2007, had specific concerns about expanding a guest worker program that could lower wages. Fast-forward to 2013, when the Senate voted on another comprehensive immigration bill. Labor groups supported it, and not a single Democrat voted against it. The way Democratic presidential candidates discuss immigration today is focused more on immigrants' rights and less on American jobs and border security. Here's New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on CNN explaining her immigration transformation. When she was in the House, she wanted to expand deportations. Now she wants to abolish ICE.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I realize that things I had said were wrong. I was not caring about others. I was not fighting for other people's kids the same way I was fighting for my own, and I was wrong to feel that way.
KHALID: There's another reason Democrats have changed if you ask Frank Sharry. He points to American public opinion.
SHARRY: Quite frankly, the driving force was immigrants, who were well-represented in the big cities of LA and New York and Houston and Chicago and Miami, were moving to all parts of the country.
KHALID: And that's changed the demographics of the Democratic Party. In the mid-'90s, about a quarter of Democrats were not white. Nowadays, 43 percent are people of color. Most of that growth has been among Asians and Latinos, which are also the largest immigrant groups.
Cecilia Munoz handled immigration policy in the Obama administration. And she says there's one other powerful factor influencing the party - immigration activists.
CECILIA MUNOZ: You have political figures adopting the activists' agenda and the activists' language.
KHALID: She says that means Democrats end up focusing on the aspects of immigration where activists are loudest.
MUNOZ: For example, immigration enforcement.
KHALID: But other important issues, like reforming the legal immigration process, don't get as much attention. Munoz also says the intensity around the immigration debate has grown since President Trump took office. With families being separated at the border and the president insisting on a wall, she says it's become more challenging for her party to engage in a conversation about immigration enforcement.
MUNOZ: It's pretty easy to talk about things that we shouldn't do. But there is not a lot of space to talk about what we should do to make this process functional to make it make sense. It's come very close to being a forbidden topic. And that, I think, is a very dangerous thing.
KHALID: Munoz says it's dangerous because voters want solutions. The Democrats can't just be the people who are not the Trump administration. They need to offer a vision of what immigration in America ought to look like.
Asma Khalid, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TROPEA'S "CHILI WA MAN")
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