One of the most interesting statements of the final presidential debate came not from President Bush or Sen. John Kerry but from moderator Bob Schieffer. He said, prefacing a question, that he'd gotten more mail on immigration than on any other issue. It was a surprise in a campaign so focused on Iraq and the economy, though the location, in immigration-sensitive Arizona, helps explain the interest.
Although Arizonans feel overwhelmed by the surge across their border, the fact is that the newcomers' effect is nationwide, for good and for ill. New Latino and Asian communities are growing in unprecedented places, in Iowa, the Deep South, even New England. From New Hampshire to Washington state and from Nebraska to Ohio, Spanish-language radio and television stations broadcast survival guides for recent arrivals. On English talk radio, there is no more explosive issue than immigration, particularly from Mexico.
The real wonder is that both presidential candidates have so successfully shoved immigration to the background.
Hope for a more rational policy brightened four years ago, with a border-state governor newly in the White House. During his first trip abroad, Bush raised expectations in Mexico and the U.S., announcing he and President Vicente Fox had "exchanged ideas about safe and orderly migration." They created a high-level task force to continue the talks, but back home, Bush supporters weren't cheering. Those wanting to seal the whole southern border and those longing for an uninterrupted flow of cheap labor squeezed from both sides. Congress sent the measure to hibernation, and the 9/11 attacks added new chill. For Democrats, the issue has been almost as troublesome. Some want to match Republican toughness, and others fear being branded liberal sellouts if they back legalizing some people already here.
Bush returned half-seriously to immigration in January, with a tentative proposal to grant renewable three-year work permits to workers now here illegally. Neither conservatives nor immigrant advocates bought into it, and Bush seemed pleased enough to drop the issue again. Until the Arizona debate.
There, both candidates repeated that they would support a temporary guest-worker program and reinforce border security. Kerry unspecifically embraced "earned legalization" over time, but immigration reform has never been his top priority.
The key immigration issues for the next president are easy to define: What should government do about the millions already here illegally? What kind of guest-worker program would satisfy the needs of the economy while preserving the rights of U.S. workers? How can employer enforcement work? What does the government owe border states for their immigration burden?
The bromides of the campaign don't indicate any deep thought on either side about the answers, or willingness to expend presidential power on selling reform.