Last month, New York became the 13th state to grant drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants, securing a victory that liberals and open-borders advocates have fought for since Eliot Spitzer was governor. But Democrats should worry about how the debate unfolded in New York: a majority of state voters opposed the bill, including about 40 percent of surveyed Democrats, mainly because the law will confer real benefits on illegal residents, thus rewarding violators of the law. The question of voter fraud—dismissed as a canard by most on the left—raised alarms when Democrats tried to pass a bill that would have automatically registered all drivers to vote (though it required non-citizens affirmatively to opt out of voter registration). After Republican legislators called attention to the potential consequences, the bill was scuttled. As it is, a state driver’s license is all that is required for voter registration in New York, so the potential for abuse is there.
In the suburbs, stiff opposition pushed Long Island’s Democratic state senators to vote unanimously against the bill. But the legislation overcame these headwinds, a testament to the ascendant Left’s newfound power statewide, particularly in New York City. Last year, Gotham voters unseated six members of the senate’s moderate Independent Democratic Conference, replacing them with more progressive challengers. The stridency of the party’s energized urban base was, on this issue, enough to overcome the opposition of the diffuse majority.
Advocates highlighted the modest supposed benefits that licensing illegal-alien drivers would deliver to the state budget and carriers of car insurance, but most voters remained unconvinced—presumably because their concern was less about money and more about the principles at stake. This negative reaction diverged from polls suggesting that Americans nationally have taken a more positive view of immigration since Donald Trump’s inauguration. The dissonance between country-wide polling and the conservative sentiment of deep-blue New York suggests that the national numbers on immigration may reflect the president’s unpopularity in particular rather than any fondness for illegal aliens—and that, when Trump is removed from the equation, the political middle on immigration remains significantly to the right of today’s Democratic Party.
This electoral dynamic is even more pronounced at the national level, where most leading Democrats have followed their activist base to extreme positions. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren all endorse the idea of abolishing ICE, while another competitor for the Democratic nomination, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, has argued for mass amnesty. Castro and Warren also favor decriminalization of illegal entry into the United States. This radical trend is a recent phenomenon. Just a decade ago, the two major contenders for the Democratic nomination—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—tacked to the center on immigration. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama complained about the people he saw waving Mexican flags at immigration rallies, as well as his struggles communicating with non-English-speaking car mechanics. Clinton, for her part, quickly distanced herself from an earlier version of the drivers’ license law when Spitzer advanced it as an executive order.
Unlike New York Democrats, who voted on an unpopular bill, national Democrats believe their leftward shift on immigration mirrors a movement in public opinion. They believe that Trump’s immigration rhetoric fueled Americans’ sympathy on the issue. But their reasoning is flawed. They cite public opinion polls suggesting that Americans shift their attitudes leftward when conservatives hold power, and reverse their position when liberals are in control. Though polling has captured real dissatisfaction with the president’s approach to immigration, it has little to say about what policies voters would support.
The battle over New York’s drivers’ license bill suggests that most voters have not followed elite Democrats to the far left on immigration. Whether this chasm harms the eventual Democratic nominee in 2020 remains to be seen—but that nominee should keep in mind that taking an extreme position on the issue is not a strategy for broad popularity.