The Democratic presidential candidates met up Thursday evening in a televised debate on CNN, and the discussion included –wait for it– immigration.
That issue bedevils the Democratic Party, which has to balance the concerns of Latinos who feel as if they’re being blamed for all the ills of society with the populist, pro-labor faction that claims that illegal immigrants decrease wages.
That is the challenge facing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And this
week, we got a chance to see who rises to it and who rolls over. Obama rose. Clinton rolled.
The Illinois senator was asked to respond to a question from a viewer about the “negative economic impact of immigration on the African-American community” — most notably high unemployment rates and declining wages.
Obama pointed out that American-Americans had high unemployment rates long “before the latest round of immigrants showed up.” There were, he said, “a whole host of reasons why we have not been generating the kinds of jobs that we are generating.” And he cautioned against using the immigration issue to divide Americans. Obama talked about his plan to secure the border and provide the undocumented with a path to legalization provided they meet certain conditions.
Then, in remarks that were so bold and honest as to be refreshing, Obama insisted that blaming immigrants for unemployment in the inner city amounts to “scapegoating,” something for which he said he had no appetite.
But apparently, Hillary Clinton did have an appetite for it. Now that her campaign has burned some bridges to African-American voters thanks to Bill Clinton’s clumsy race baiting in South Carolina, it was as if she was desperate to a pander a little to African-Americans — even if it was at the expense of Latino immigrants.
She was asked an altogether different question — about why she opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. She eventually got around to answering it, but not before detouring into the question that Obama was asked because, she said, “it deserves an answer.”
Diving into the muck, Clinton said we have to be honest about the fact that, in many parts of the country, there have been job losses attributable to “employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages.” She said she meets “people who have been pushed out of jobs and factories and meat processing plants, and all kinds of settings.” Clinton even talked about a man that she’d met — an African-American — who told her that he used to have a lot of construction jobs and that now “it seems like the only people who get them anymore are people who are here without documentation.”
Hillary didn’t say what she told the man in response. Here’s what I would have told him: “Sir, I’m sorry you say you can’t find as many construction job as you’d like, or as much as you’d expect. But if you want someone to blame, forget the undocumented and look in the mirror. If you find yourself competing with people who aren’t here legally, who often don’t have more than a 6th grade education or speak the language, and you lose out in that competition, well, there is something wrong with this picture — something that tougher immigration laws won’t solve. Maybe you need to specialize your work, so you can demand a higher price. Or maybe you need to find another line of work. Either way, life is about competition. And it’s not the job of government to protect you from it.”
I think that was what Barack Obama was hinting at, and why — in answering that question — he performed a public service. Hillary Clinton just performed.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.com