Monday, March 3, 2008

Immigration: The Myth of the Third Rail of Politics

Now that the last three presidential candidates still standing are all in favor of comprehensive immigration reform it is becoming clear to most astute observers that immigration is not the third rail of politics. The conventional wisdom is that any serious political candidate dare not articulate a pro-immigrant platform lest they get burned by the charged rail of American politics. In fact, the most likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, marched with the thousands who protested in the summer of 2006 supporting immigrant rights. As New York Times reporter, David Leonhart notes in the March 2, 2008 issue of the New York Times:

Mr. McCain will all but clinch the Republican nomination on Tuesday with victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries. In the Texas campaign, except for a couple of obligatory questions about a border fence during a Democratic debate, immigration has been the dog that didn’t bark. The candidates who would have made an issue of it exited the race long ago.

The Border and the Ballot Box by David Leonhart, (New York Times, Mar 2, 2008)


Leonhart gives some historical perspective and notes that although the issue has always attracted a wave of xenophobia it has rarely impacted national elections. Given the Nativist laws that have been passed in prior eras, it is still a stretch to say that the immigration issue has little currency. The truth is that in economically challenging times, American workers will often focus their anger on the jobs allegedly lost to immigrants. Combine this with a pernicious racism and you still have a combustible political mixture.

Nonetheless, those of us who favor a humanist policy towards immigrants, especially those immigrants who live underground lives, can take comfort in seeing the likes of Tom Tancredo and his ilk go down in flames. The Nativist appeal clearly resonates with a portion of the American electorate but it does not carry the day as a wedge issue. Nativists do their cause ill by aligning themselves with the racists, like Michelle Malkin and the VDare folks who spew irrational hatred. We, at least, have reason on our side.

The task for progressives, as stated by Abe Lincoln, is to appeal to the better angels of our nature.

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I harbor no illusions that we will easily overcome cultural resistance to the immigrant population and more broadly to the Latino community within our midst. But having been raised in Texas, with its Hispanic roots going back five centuries, I have seen some amazing melding of cultures. Surely, an appeal to simple humanity and perhaps a modicum of self-interest, we can find a way to move the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in a direction that finds some resonance in the humanity that is the American people.

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