Saturday, April 19, 2008

Who Has the Best Chance at Enacting Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Before I launch my analysis, let me note that I am a life-long Democrat and I have never voted for a Republican candidate in my life. As well, you should know that I strongly support Barack Obama whom, I believe, will be our next president. That said, purely from a tactical point of view which candidate can change the dynamics of immigration enough to bring about comprehensive immigration reform?

The last comprehensive legislation on immigration, IRCA 1986, became law under a divided government (Democratic House and Republican Senate) and was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The rancor over the 1986 legislation was just as heated and bitter as is the current political climate. What made the difference in 1986 was the fact that Ronald Reagan enjoyed immense popular support and could count on the Congressional Republicans to fall in line. As well, a bipartisan agreement was possible due to the fact that many Democrats favored immigration reform. Finally, neither Democrats nor Republicans had to fear that the issue would be used against them given the bipartisan support on the issue.

No action will take place on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform before the national election in November 2008. Eristic ragemail has propounded that immigration is not the third rail of politics, as some pundits claim. However, the Republicans continue to view immigration as a wedge issue that they can parlay in a year where few issues favor Republicans. As such, the issue remains hot and, at least in the Congressional races, Democrats will tip-toe on immigration. Not so in the presidential elections.

Clinton has stated that if she were elected President, she would consider within her first 100 days, granting an open path to naturalization for all illegal immigrants

All three putative presidential candidates, Obama, McCain and Clinton, are clearly on record as supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Clinton’s position, is perhaps the strongest of the three candidates. According to her website:

Hillary has consistently called for comprehensive immigration reform that respects our immigrant heritage and honors the rule of law. She believes comprehensive reform must have as essential ingredients a strengthening of our borders, greater cross-cooperation with our neighbors, strict but fair enforcement of our laws, federal assistance to our state and local governments, strict penalties for those who exploit undocumented workers, and a path to earned legal status for those who are here, working hard, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a high bar.

Clinton has stated that if she were elected President, she would consider within her first 100 days, granting an open path to naturalization for all illegal immigrants based on legal limits. Previously, on October 30, 2007, Clinton had committed her support to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer´s plan to give driver´s licenses to illegal immigrants. Also on March 8, 2006, Clinton criticized H.R. 4437, a bill passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005 that would impose harsher penalties for undocumented workers. Clinton will likely not get the Democratic nomination but she owes quite a bit to the Latino vote that gave her wins in big states.

Obama has also constantly voiced the view that there is no way that 12 million illegal immigrants can be sent back

Barack Obama’s position on comprehensive immigration reform is not as strong as Clinton’s and treads a fair deal of enforcement rhetoric. It should be noted that of the three candidates, Barack Obama actually marched in the national pro-immigrant marches of 2006. Obama supported the Bush-backed immigration reform legislation, which would allow increased funding and improve border security technology, improve enforcement of existing laws, and provide a legal path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. Barack voted to authorize construction of the 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. However, Obama has also clearly stated he will not support any bill that does not provide an earned path to citizenship for the undocumented population. He favors a guest worker program. Obama has also constantly voiced the view that there is no way that 12 million illegal immigrants can be sent back, especially the children of illegal immigrants, due to no fault of their own, and one of his top priorities would be to make sure that they be allowed to continue with college education in the U.S. Obama emphatically stated "It´s not going to happen. We´re not going to go round them up … We should give them a pathway to citizenship." In January 2008, Barack Obama also campaigned to grant drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.

During the debate on Bush’s immigration legislation, Obama was less than forceful in his pro-immigrant position.

But I fully appreciate that we cannot create a new guestworker program without making it as close to impossible as we can for illegal workers to find employment. We do not need new guestworkers plus future undocumented immigrants. We need guestworkers instead of undocumented immigrants.

Toward that end, American employers need to take responsibility. Too often illegal immigrants are lured here with a promise of a job, only to receive unconscionably low wages. In the interest of cheap labor, unscrupulous employers look the other way when employees provide fraudulent U.S. citizenship documents. Some actually call and place orders for undocumented workers because they don't want to pay minimum wages to American workers in surrounding communities. These acts hurt both American workers and immigrants whose sole aim is to work hard and get ahead. That is why we need a simple, foolproof, and mandatory mechanism for all employers to check the legal status of new hires. Such a mechanism is in the Judiciary Committee bill.

And before any guestworker is hired, the job must be made available to Americans at a decent wage with benefits. Employers then need to show that there are no Americans to take these jobs. I am not willing to take it on faith that there are jobs that Americans will not take. There has to be a showing. If this guestworker program is to succeed, it must be properly calibrated to make certain that these are jobs that cannot be filled by Americans, or that the guestworkers provide particular skills we can't find in this country.

I know that dealing with the undocumented population is difficult, for practical and political reasons. But we simply cannot claim to have dealt with the problems of illegal immigration if we ignore the illegal resident population or pretend they will leave voluntarily. Some of the proposed ideas in Congress provide a temporary legal status and call for deportation, but fail to answer how the government would deport 11 million people. I don't know how it would be done. I don't know how we would line up all the buses and trains and airplanes and send 11 million people back to their countries of origin. I don't know why it is that we expect they would voluntarily leave after having taken the risk of coming to this country without proper documentation.

Critics, might say that Obama was trying to have it both ways, voicing support for comprehensive immigration reform while sounding tough on enforcement. Where Obama actually stands on CIR remains to be determined. Given the litany of problems to be faced by the next president, it may well be that immigration reform will take a low priority in an Obama administration.

McCain actively campaigned for Jim Oberweis of Illinois, who is rabidly anti-immigrant and whose positions can accurately be described as radically nativist

Finally, there is John McCain. McCain has been dancing around all sides of this issue. On the one hand, he co-sponsored the Bush legislation, indicating a long-held support for comprehensive immigration reform. On the other, McCain has made statements which play well with the nativist crowd. McCain actively campaigned for Jim Oberweis of Illinois, who is rabidly anti-immigrant and whose positions can accurately be described as radically nativist. After Oberweis lost, McCain seemed to backpedal and suggested that the Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric may not have much traction. Given his history and coming from a border state a more nuanced view on immigration is probably hard-wired in McCain. In other words, given the right opportunity, McCain would instinctually favor immigration reform that includes a path for citizenship for the undocumented workers residing in the United States. The problem is that his party will not countenance such a position.

Would things change if McCain won the presidency? Unlikely. First, it is almost certain that he would have to deal with a Democratic Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives look to have substantial gains in Democratic seats. Given his strong support for the war in Iraq, he would be substantially weaker than Obama or Clinton. As well, he faces a weak economy, the prospect of stagflation and raft of other problems inherited from the Bush administration. Given these dynamics would he stick his neck out on immigration when he has to hold his ground on a raft of unpopular issues? The Democratic Congress is unlikely to push the immigration issue into the foreground. On the other hand, this may be one of the issues that he can till common ground with the Congress. Will, he as Clinton promised, make this a priority in his first hundred days in office? Not a chance.

Conversely, Obama and Clinton would enjoy a Congress controlled by their party. This should give them some room to maneuver on this issue. How might this play out? Well, the largest prizes in the electoral college map are states that have significant Hispanic populations. Will Obama, who is almost certainly the Democratic nominee, feel some obligation to the Latino voters? Certainly, having gotten Bill Richardson’s endorsement, long before other superdelegates pledged, must be worth something. Much will depend on how the Hispanic leadership presses the issue. The Hispanic leadership does not wield the same political power as the Black Caucus. Given the foregoing, our best chance at comprehensive immigration reform remains with Barack Obama and the people he chooses to people his administration. Can he change the nativist dynamics that currently infect the debate? Yes. Will he do so? Maybe.

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