Is immigration still a big issue in this country? Or has it been pushed aside by Wall Street woes, rising unemployment, high gas and food prices, and other matters of the pocketbook?
One place you haven’t seen the issue discussed much is the presidential election. That’s primarily because neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has an interest in broaching the subject.
Oh, the campaigns are tweaking each other with dueling Spanish-language radio and television ads. The McCain-Palin campaign fired first with an ad accusing Barack Obama of helping to kill immigration reform to placate labor unions. The Obama-Biden team returned fire with an ad trying to link McCain to rightwing nativists in the Republican Party. But the whole point of these ads being in Spanish is so they operate under the radar of most voters, who speak English.
There are three reasons for the campaigns’ immigration blackout.
First, while there are differences on aspects of the issue such as drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants (Obama supports, McCain opposes) or the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to earn legalization by attending college (Obama supports, McCain opposes), the candidates agree on the need for comprehensive immigration reform that combines border enforcement, guest workers, and earned legalization. So there isn’t much to argue about.
Second, a full and honest discussion of the issue could fracture the coalition that each has patched together to support his candidacy; McCain doesn’t need labor-hungry business interests squabbling with the nativists who worry that American culture is becoming obsolete, any more than Obama wants to stir tensions between blue collar workers and African-Americans who want to crack down on illegal immigration and Latinos who worry that this impulse is fueled by racism.
And third, if in that full and honest discussion we were to include a candid acknowledgment of the candidates’ positions, each of them would have to confront an integral part of his base. McCain would have to slug it out with anti-amnesty conservatives while Obama would have to finally stand up to organized labor in defense of a guest worker plan, which labor leaders believe would hurt U.S. workers by subjecting them to something they loathe: competition.
So it’s just easier for both camps to avoid the issue altogether. Besides, now that the election is almost over, what matters now is what happens next — under President Obama or President McCain. And, it’s there that we’re likely to get very different outcomes.
The conventional thinking is that the left-leaning Obama is certain to propose an amnesty for illegal immigrants and that McCain is just as certain not to because his conservative base won’t let him. But, throughout this election, conventional thinking has been wrong, and this is just another instance of where that’s true.
If elected, it’s likely that the hyper-ambitious Obama will spend much of his first term choosing his battles very carefully and trying to avoid legislative fistfights with Congress that threaten the prospects for a second term. Already, Obama has warned that he won’t get around to immigration reform in the critical first 100 days of his administration. And, given how Washington works — or rather, doesn’t work in even-numbered years — that probably means it won’t happen in the first term.
On the other hand, McCain told me in a recent telephone interview that, if elected, he is committed to getting a comprehensive immigration reform package together in the first 100 days.
“The whole issue of comprehensive immigration reform will be among my highest priorities,” he said. “Because we have to address this issue. . . . Republicans and Democrats have to sit down together and work together and get this thing done. We tried that before, and now we have to ensure people that we will do it a way that will ensure border security.”
A lot of Latino Democrats are betting that, if Barack Obama is elected, they’ll get comprehensive immigration reform. They’re just as sure that, if John McCain is elected, the status quo will be preserved.
I’ve got a hunch that they have it upside down.