Why has immigration disappeared from the presidential debates?

We still don’t know if there will be another debate between President Trump and Joe Biden or where or when it will happen if so. Of the two debates that have taken place between the tickets thus far, did you notice anything missing? A recent editorial at the Free Beacon brings up what should be a relevant topic for election observers. What happened to the subject of immigration? In the entirety of both the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate, they note that not one single question on the subject was asked and none of the four candidates thought to inject it into the conversation on their own. Considering that not very long ago it was almost the only issue making any headlines, this represents a rather stark change.

Why the omission? It is tempting to say that immigration did not come up because the elites who manage the presidential debates are uncomfortable with the topic, are worried that the issue favors Republican border hawks, and are more interested in subjects relevant to their cultural coterie. But it is also true that presidential debates tend to focus on current events and pressing challenges, and that immigration just does not seem as great a concern today as the coronavirus, the economy, race relations and civil unrest, and California brushfires.

The apparent irrelevance of immigration and border security to the election might also be attributed to the achievements of the Trump administration. But these achievements are partial, tenuous, and dependent on events and relationships and court decisions. And they are easily reversed. What should worry the president is that the somnolence on the border deprives him of the very issue that propelled his rise to power, and that drove the populist revolt against the Washington establishment whose offshoots included the Ron Paul candidacies, the Tea Party, and Republican victories in 2014 and 2016.

There are a couple of moving parts to this topic, but some of the primary drivers of this shift in the public discussion seem rather obvious. As the editorial above correctly notes, not having immigration front and center in the debates is not good news for President Trump. The subject of immigration – and particularly illegal immigration – is his bread and butter. It drove his base to the polls in droves in 2016 and, while the nation remains relatively divided on the topic, the numbers generally leaned in his favor among the public. With that as the backdrop, I would venture to say that the absence of any immigration questions during the debates is by design, not happenstance.

In a nutshell, it’s essentially the same reason that gun control has disappeared. Democrats know their agenda is not popular on either front. And if something isn’t a winning topic for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the collection of Democrats and NeverTrumpers on the Commission on Presidential Debates aren’t exactly going to make it a priority. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to gun control than immigration. You’re not hearing a peep about it and the Democrats have fallen silent. Thanks to the pandemic and the resultant riots and unrest, people are lining up to attempt to buy guns in numbers never seen before. And many of them either can’t apply and finish the application process or they’re getting tripped up in delays lasting for months because of all the hoops the Democrats who passed these laws are making them jump through. Nobody who is cheering for a Biden victory and a Democratic takeover of the Senate want’s to hear a peep about new gun control laws until after the election.

Yet another factor to consider is that the President has become something of a victim of his own success here. Immigration isn’t as much of an issue because the problems we fought over in 2016 have abated to a considerable degree. The caravans of illegals that previously washed up on our border have largely disappeared. The last one to leave Honduras was almost entirely dismantled and sent packing before they reached Mexico’s southern border. This is largely due to the President’s policies and the agreements he’s forged with our southern neighbors, but also because of fears that these large, unwashed masses could make the spread of the novel coronavirus worse in their own countries as much as our own.

And yet there’s also some truth to the other fact addressed by the Free Beacon’s editors. Yes, there are other factors that have dominated the national conversation throughout the madness of 2020 and that’s made it more convenient to allow immigration to drift off the front page. The pandemic is sucking all of the oxygen out of the debate hall, leaving little room for much else. We’re not only fighting the disease itself, but arguing over relief bills, the efficacy of various measures taken against it, and ways to renormalize society in an era that’s anything but normal. This is an area where Democrats sense a vulnerability they can exploit. The plague happened on Trump’s watch so the responsibility for how it’s handled lands in his lap. (As is proper.) And if people are unhappy and feeling pain because of the pandemic, at least some of them will fix the blame on Donald Trump.

But sooner or later, this wave will pass. And when it does, the immigration topic will be back in the news and these issues will need to be dealt with. Just don’t ask Joe Biden what solutions he will offer if he’s in charge. You don’t deserve to know.

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