Who’s the immigration candidate?

ImmigrationElectionsIllegal ImmigrantsPoliticsMigrationBarack ObamaCrime

Today, Jiménez and Krikorian weigh the candidates' stances on immigration. Yesterday, they debated the effects of tougher immigration enforcement. Later in the week, they'll discuss Real ID, the future of the immigration debate and more.

Good choices in both partiesBy Tomás R. Jiménez
As millions of Californians vote to nominate their party's presidential candidate, it appears that fewer and fewer are relying on their beliefs about immigration to make their decision. The souring economy and the war in Iraq are weighing much heavier on their minds. Still, as I'm sure you would agree, Mark, immigration is an important issue and one about which many voters are nonetheless concerned.

Who are the right candidates on immigration? Let's start with the Democrats. As with most of the issues, there is little daylight between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both favor comprehensive immigration reform that looks a lot like the proposal the Senate voted on in 2006: increased border security, a pathway to citizenship and an electronic employment verification system. Much has been made of their disagreement over whether to allow undocumented immigrants to have a driver's license. Becausse this is a state matter over which our next president will have little power, it is not a relevant point of difference.

I think that Obama has the slight edge. Obama was one of the four members of the Senate who was deeply involved in negotiations on the 2006 comprehensive reform bill, so he knows the political side of the issue as well as anyone. He has gone on record as saying that he would address immigration reform in his first year in office. This should attract voters who actually want to see progress on immigration reform. Central to his immigration plan is a restructuring of the federal bureaucracy to reduce backlogs for green card applications and to make our immigration system more responsive to labor demands. Backlogs are the elephant in the room that everyone in the immigration debate seems to ignore, and Obama's emphasis on this issue makes him a good choice.

For those picking up a Republican ballot at the polls, Sen. John McCain is the clear choice. Republican nominees have been playing a game of bloody knuckles to prove who can be tougher on "illegals." McCain has admirably stayed out of this game. Lately, he has placed much more emphasis on border security as a prerequisite for other aspects of immigration reform, but he nonetheless believes in a comprehensive program that includes a pathway to legal status and a way to meet labor demands. He was the Republican driving force behind the 2006 comprehensive Senate bill. This, combined with the fact that he represents a border state, means that he knows how to navigate the political minefield that is immigration reform.

What also separates McCain from his competitors is his consistency on the issue and his pragmatic approach. He avoids fear-mongering, favoring instead a reasonable approach that takes account of the complex mix of economic, social and political forces that shape migration patterns. He also sees the need for reform vis-à-vis labor rights and human rights. McCain readily notes that lacking documentation opens up immigrants to labor abuses, and he sees the mounting number of deaths along the border as a tragic consequence of a failed policy. For these reasons, McCain stands head and shoulders above his Republican competitors when it comes to immigration.

If McCain is the Republican nominee, it will be interesting to see whether immigration is a factor in the general election. McCain's stance and that of both Democratic contenders are very similar. Given that campaigns tend to silence debate on issues that do not highlight differences, immigration may not receive the attention it deserves. Silence on such an important issue would not be good.

Tomás R. Jiménez is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


Don't buy McCain's tough-enforcement conversionBy Mark Krikorian
Tomás:

Your assessment that supporters of amnesty and open borders should vote for Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama today is correct. I also agree that, if McCain is the nominee, "immigration may not receive the attention it deserves" in the general election campaign, mainly because McCain holds the same beliefs as either of his likely opponents, so there's nothing to debate. That would be a repeat of the 2000 and 2004 races, in which President Bush had the same views on immigration as Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry.

But your version of the developing conventional wisdom that "fewer and fewer [voters] are relying on their beliefs about immigration to make their decision" doesn't ring true. Obviously the Iraq war and the economy are important factors in everyone's thinking, but there's a story line being developed by elite commentators that the outcry over immigration was a flash in the pan, driven by a noisy minority, and now there's a voter backlash against it.

Baloney.

The best evidence of the resonance of the immigration issue is the primary campaign itself. Every Republican candidate is now ostensibly supporting tough enforcement. Other than Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, most of the field was not especially hawkish on immigration, but they changed fast. Mitt Romney, after seeming open to amnesty in 2005, came out against it and repeatedly attacked Rudy Giuliani for presiding over a sanctuary city while mayor of New York. Giuliani saw that he needed to sound tough, so he came out against the Senate amnesty bill last summer and told audiences, "I could end illegal immigration in three years." Mike Huckabee's comments as Arkansas governor in support of illegal immigrants led me to think he'd be a McCain clone on the issue — but instead he modeled his current immigration platform on an article I wrote in the National Review. Fred Thompson explicitly promoted "attrition through enforcement" and, along with Huckabee, actually proposed significant reductions in legal immigration, the first time that's happened in a presidential campaign in generations.

Even "Amnesty John" McCain is saying that he "got the message" from voters last summer who opposed his amnesty bill and that he realizes now that he has to "secure the borders first." This is a transparent lie, as his prominent supporters understand, but it's a lie that many voters coming late to the campaign are falling for. McCain is succeeding despite his decades-long track record in favor of amnesty (and bilingual education, racial quotas and the rest) precisely because of this change in rhetoric, and also because those voters who do see through his prevarications are divided among the other candidates.

Even on the Democratic side, where there's little disagreement, Hillary Clinton felt she had to back away from her support of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants to preserve her political viability in the general election.

How should immigration hawks vote? If they're Democrats, Clinton is the least-bad choice because she's a tiny bit better than Obama and less likely to expend political capital pushing amnesty in Congress. On the Republican side, whoever is the strongest candidate opposing McCain is the obvious choice — Romney in California, for instance, but Huckabee in Alabama or Rep. Ron Paul in Alaska.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the forthcoming book, "The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal."

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