RACINE, Wis. — In this old manufacturing city that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, dislike for President Donald Trump runs wide and deep. Images of crying children at the Mexican border typically serve as Exhibit A on the list of grievances that Democratic voters cite against the president.
Many of those voters also express strong views opposing illegal border crossings, often rooted in their own family stories of coming to America. If you want a chance at the American dream, they say, you should play by the rules.
“I think everybody should come in the right way, just like our ancestors did,” said Christy Cowles, 59, a retired city worker who is a fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Voters like Cowles present a conundrum for Democrats on the sensitive topic of immigration. While many Democrats express a desire to ease the way for aspiring immigrants, party leaders also worry that an immigration agenda that shifts too far left could alienate voters in tightly contested states like Wisconsin, ranging from avowed liberals like Cowles to coveted swing voters.
In the first round of Democratic debates in June, candidates staked out aggressively liberal positions on immigration, with near-unanimous support for decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
The idea was first advanced by Julián Castro, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who is among those scheduled to be onstage Wednesday night in the second set of debates. Jeh Johnson, the head of homeland security during the Obama administration, criticized the concept as tantamount to permitting open borders. Since then, another candidate, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, also slated to appear Wednesday night, said he would virtually eliminate immigration detention.
In a sign of the escalating concerns within the party, several Democratic governors this month expressed alarm about open-borders rhetoric. And a document recently circulated to House Democrats from party consultants advised a more moderate approach — suggesting the party emphasize a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who “work hard and pay their taxes” but also stress the importance of secure borders.
“Beyond policy, the best frame on immigration acknowledges the problem and talks about solutions — both addressing border security and a path to earned citizenship,” read the memo, which was addressed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
A recent Gallup poll found that immigration tops the list of issues that Americans view as important. Trump’s demands for a wall at the Mexican border, as well as tighter restrictions on immigration, have emerged as an emotional issue in the presidential campaign. The president and his supporters have called Democrats soft on enforcement; Democrats counter that the wall and inhumane treatment of those seeking asylum are antithetical to core American values.
There are few places where the topic is more contentious than in Wisconsin, a swing state where it has been used as a cudgel against Democrats, even in local races for positions with no role in federal immigration policy.
Rob Grover, a Democrat who ran for the state Assembly last year, said he was surprised when a flyer paid for by the Wisconsin Republican Party suggested he wanted to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Grover, who describes himself as conservative on immigration issues, said he had never expressed such a view. He lost his race in western Wisconsin.
Immigration has also emerged as an issue in other state races, with right-leaning appeals that appear designed to inflame anti-immigrant passion, according to Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, who blamed huge last-minute spending around immigration and other issues for defeating the Democratic candidate in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Special interest groups on both sides of the race reported spending more than $4 million in an effort to sway its outcome.
With its Democratic city center and a surrounding rural area that skews Republican, Racine County often swings from one party to another, serving as a national bellwether in predicting the outcome of presidential races. In 2016, the county voted for Trump.
And in this swing district, some local Democrats have speculated that immigration helped torpedo their efforts last year to win the congressional seat held by former House Speaker Paul Ryan, according to Fabi Maldonado, a Racine County supervisor and immigration advocate.
The Democratic candidate, Randy Bryce, had been arrested while protesting Ryan’s position on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which delays deportation and allows work permits for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children.
“There was internal fighting in the Democratic Party over whether he was too open about supporting illegal immigration,” Maldonado said. “Some of that might be true, but you have to be for immigration rights if you want Latinx voters to turn out.”
Cowles, the retired city worker, said that her forebears arrived in Racine a century ago from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Germany, joining a wave of European immigrants who settled this lakefront city 30 miles south of Milwaukee. African Americans arrived during the Great Migration and, more recently, the Latino population has swelled to about 20%. The city has largely embraced its multiethnic mosaic. Tortillas are sold on the same block as kringles, the Wisconsin state pastry introduced by Danish immigrants. The Racine City Council recently endorsed the idea of permitting driver’s licenses for unauthorized residents.
Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats and left-leaning voters revealed disagreement on immigration. Some favored more relaxed policies and others urged caution, recalling stories passed down through generations about how their ancestors struggled to find sponsors before arriving on Ellis Island.
Kevin Hughes, who retired from a factory that makes shampoo, said he favored more liberal policies. “Everybody is going somewhere else to try to make a better life for their family,” said Hughes, 59. “Why would you want to criminalize that?”
Maria Haenel, 35, who was born in Illinois to Mexican parents, held a similar view. “Even if immigrants that have come over the border, even if they don’t have papers, they should be given a chance to get a work visa, or a student visa, or some type of help to stay here and be able to live the American dream,” said Haenel, a caregiver for older adults.
Yet some members of Racine’s Mexican American community said they worried about opening up borders too liberally. Lewis Mendoza, 68, takes pride in the contribution of Mexican people to the Wisconsin economy, particularly in the dairy industry, where a high percentage of workers are believed to be unauthorized.
“There was a time when blue-eyed, blond-haired people did that job,” said Mendoza, a Democrat who voted for Clinton. “You don’t see any white people anymore. It’s all Mexican people. What are you going to do if you send them back?”
But Mendoza, a veteran who has worked as a dishwasher in Racine restaurants alongside unauthorized workers, also expressed skepticism about migrants who enter the country illegally. “As far as just jumping over a fence or something, I don’t know about that. I’m a little leery about that,” he said.
Racine is known for its ethnic festivals, many held on the shore of Lake Michigan.
A lakefront fair last week sponsored by the Roma Lodge, an Italian welfare association, featured fireworks, Frank Sinatra music and a dinner of mostaccioli and ravioli. Jim Faraone, a former board member of the organization, was in charge of selling lottery tickets to raise money for local health charities.
Faraone, a Vietnam veteran, is a swing voter, having supported both Barack Obama and Clinton, but also Ryan, a Republican. He also expressed skepticism about an overly broad border policy.
“They shouldn’t be here unless they came in legally; it’s the only way,” said Faraone, 77, whose father immigrated from Italy and developed the home building business that Faraone later operated. Echoing Trump, Faraone expressed fear that other countries were offloading “murderers and other criminals” into the United States.
Ginny Ziolkowski, 70, also said she swung from one party to another, most recently supporting Obama and Clinton, but before that President George W. Bush. As for Trump, “I personally can’t stand him,” she said as she took in the view at Racine’s lakefront.
But Ziolkowski, whose husband was a Racine County executive — a lakefront park here bears his name — said she leaned conservative on immigration issues and opposed providing health care benefits to unauthorized migrants, another idea some candidates endorsed during the first debates. It’s clearly an issue the Trump campaign thinks works in its favor; on Tuesday, it released a new advertisement blasting Democrats for supporting the idea.
“I feel they need to come in legally if they want to live here,” Ziolkowski said. “And they should not be getting education, health care and other benefits.”
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