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Virginia Democrats Stand Up To Demagogues And It Works, Some House Democrats Stand With Demagogues And It Won't

by Frank Sharry of National Immigration Forum

As the saying goes, the only polls that matter are on Election Day.  Forgive us.  We are biting our tongue.  We want to scream “We told you so!!!”  But we are above that.  We will refrain from such childish triumphalism and seek to educate. 

Let’s Review

Immigration is an issue that is relatively new to most in the political class, and as a result is often misunderstood as both a policy issue and a political issue.  Just as in the lead up to the 2006 mid-terms, the pre-election conventional wisdom this year held that illegal immigration had arrived as a potent new Republican wedge issue.  It goes something like this: Watch out.  This issue has legs and it will swing elections.  The polls couldn’t be clearer.  People are angry about this issue.  Candidates, especially those who run on the issue, say illegal immigration is all they hear about on the campaign trail. 

But what about 2006 we ask? You told us it would work then and it didn’t. In fact, in the first election in which immigration became a major issue across the country, the results were indisputable: in race after race the centrist reformer beat the hard liner.  (See the Forum’s analysis of the 2006 races, Nov. 8, 2006.)

Perhaps, but that was then and this is now comes the response.  In 2006 the pop of this issue was overwhelmed by the prominence and power of other issues.  Now that illegal immigration is front and center, from Virginia to New York, you guys are in for a rude awakening. 

Thanks for sharing, we reply.  But we stand by our prediction: voters want measured leadership, not gotcha politics; yes, the issue has legs, but the hard-liners don’t; voters are not so much anti-immigrant as they are anti-inaction. 

The cognoscenti smile and dismiss our views as the wishful thinking of those with an axe to grind.

Results Don’t Lie

So, now that the results are in, perhaps we can shift from predictions to analysis. 

In Virginia, the November 7th front page Washington Post headline said it all: “In the Ballot Booths, No Fixation on Immigration.”  Democrats continued their winning streak in this once-red, now-purple state by taking the State Senate and gaining in the House of Delegates.  Combined with the recent wins of Governor Tim Kaine, Senator James Webb, and the ascendancy of Senate candidate Mark Warner, Democrats are on a roll. 

How did Democrats dodge the immigration bullet in Virginia?  By emphasizing sensible leadership and practical solutions on the priorities of the voters, including illegal immigration, over the heated rhetoric and polarizing politics of many Republican candidates.  Democratic candidates acknowledged the importance of illegal immigration and promised measured action.  Perhaps the leading example is the Fairfax Country Board Chairman Gerry Connolly (who won re-election against immigration hawk John Blaise by a 2-1 margin).  He promised to deal with problems associated with immigration based on behavior, not immigration status, and he denounced the demagoguery of Republicans, including his opponent. 

According to the Post’s columnist Marc Fisher, who follows Virginia politics closely, many Republicans now get that they relied too heavily on immigration as an issue.  On November 8th, he wrote:

The one point on which moderates and conservatives seem to agree is that their party overplayed the illegal immigration issue. “They went for a magic bullet with immigration, and it didn’t work,” says a conservative strategist who doesn’t want his name used because his clients don’t agree that immigration is a losing issue. Prince William County board Chairman Corey Stewart [the leading proponent of harsh policies aimed at making the country inhospitable to undocumented immigrants], the strategist says, “won last year as the anti-tax and anti-growth candidate, and he ended up in the same place this year. He pushed hard on immigration, but it didn’t move his numbers” in his reelection victory Tuesday.  Moderates say harsh rhetoric on immigration repelled independent voters. Northern Virginians “know this crackdown on illegal immigration was posturing,” Potts says [Sen. Russ Potts is a moderate Republican from Winchester, VA]. “The only entity in the world that could solve that problem is the federal government.”

But what about New York?  Didn’t the botched roll-out and public outcry over Governor Spitzer’s ill-timed drivers’ license proposal doom the Democrats up for election on Tuesday?  Well, the November 7th New York Times headline read: “New York Democrats Say License Issue Had Little Effect.”  According to someone who should know, June O’Neill, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, “it’s clear that all politics really are local and that the pundits really missed the mark on this one.  For weeks, all we’ve heard was that driver’s licenses would be a key issue in these races. That just didn’t come to pass.”

As Mort Kondracke, a long-time observer of the immigration debate wrote in Wednesday’s Roll Call, “American voters this year have rejected a nativist approach to illegal immigration. It ought to be a warning to Republicans: Don’t make this your 2008 wedge issue. Election results on Tuesday, especially in Virginia and New York state, also should encourage nervous Democrats that they can support comprehensive immigration reform – stronger enforcement plus earned legalization – and prevail.” (“Despite Danger, GOP Tees Up Immigration as 2008 Wedge Issue,” Nov. 8, 2007.)

Will House Democrats Learn From Virginia Democrats, or Not?

So, let’s see if we can be heard now that illegal immigration issue was once again tried just about everywhere, and once again failed just about everywhere.  Why do polls show voters angry and frustrated with this issue, but seem reluctant to give their votes to the hardliners with the toughest rhetoric, the meanest mailers, and the punchiest slogans?  Because despite the visibility of a loud but not large cadre of mobilized extremists, most of those voters upset with the illegal immigration issue want leadership aimed at solving the problem, not political grandstanding aimed at inflaming tensions.  And the partisan gap on what E.J. Dionne calls “solutionism” is getting bigger by the day. (“Democrats Hone The Brand,” Washington Post, Nov. 9, 2007.)

What can we learn from the way illegal immigration is playing in elections when it comes to the Democratic Party and in particular the House of Representatives as it heads into an important election year?  This is the People’s House, and in 2006 the people fired the Republicans for playing games rather than solving problems.  They hired the Democrats to give them a chance.  How are they doing on the vexing challenge of illegal immigration?

Speaker Pelosi deserves very high marks.  Earlier this year she rightly called on the Senate to move on comprehensive immigration reform first (the Senate had approved a version of comprehensive reform in 2006, and taking it up first would provide needed momentum to move it in the House).  She regularly and loudly called for action on this pressing priority.  She and those members who are immigration experts were clearly disappointed when in June of this year Republican opposition killed a Senate bill designed to win Republican support, thereby dooming comprehensive immigration reform as we have known it for this Congress.

But the voters want action, and the issue won’t go away.  What now?  The House Democratic leadership seems divided.  Some want to move targeted measures, while some are interested in a reformulated broader approach.  Still others seem tempted to move towards an enforcement-only approach favored by most Republicans.

Enter Heath Shuler, Freshman Democrat from the red state of North Carolina.  Coming from a state that has experienced the largest percentage increase in illegal workers, one can understand that he wants to take on this issue and be seen as a leader.  Introducing a bill and sending out a press release locally is standard fare for members in their first term.  But he is not alone.  He has been joined by more than 40 Democratic co-sponsors and a similar number of Republican co-sponsors

At first blush, and as policy, the Shuler proposal may sound reasonable to those relatively new to the immigration issue.  His enforcement-only bill would get tougher on the border, facilitate the apprehension and deportation of those in the U.S. illegally, and institute a full-blown employer verification and sanctions regime aimed at preventing the hiring and employment of illegal workers.   After all, don’t we need enhanced enforcement to get control of the borders and reduce illegal immigration?  And what’s wrong with doing “enforcement first” so we gain the confidence of the American people who are skeptical about our resolve to curtail illegal immigration? 

In reality, while the Shuler proposal may sound reasonable, if enacted as proposed, it would be anything but.  Let’s recall that we have 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S.  According to the Pew Hispanic Center, most have lived in the U.S. for more than five years, most work in multiple jobs, and most live in family units comprised of citizens, permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants.  The undocumented comprise 1 out of 20 workers in the U.S. and are overrepresented in agriculture, landscaping, construction, and hospitality.  The effect of an enforcement-only bill along the lines of Shuler’s would be as follows: some undocumented immigrants would leave the country, but the vast majority would stay even as they are driven further into the shadows; unscrupulous employers and cutthroat sub-contractors would have a bigger pool of even easier-to-exploit workers; and decent employers intent on paying decent wages and growing their businesses would be further undermined by bottom-feeder employers. As a result, American low-wage workers would be worse off, law-abiding employers would be worse off, immigrant families would be worse off, and the currently dysfunctional immigration system would be worse off. 

But what about the politics?  If voters are upset about illegal immigration and want something done, shouldn’t Democrats take the lead and propose measured solutions?  And isn’t enforcement a critical component of fixing the broken system?  Yes, and yes!!!  As part of a broader bill that reboots the system and legally registers the current undocumented through an earned legalization program, many of Shuler’s proposals could work.  In fact, his bill seems to be based on legislation written by the likes of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  Gutierrez rightly sized up the Shuler bill when he said this: “It looked like he grabbed my STRIVE bill [the comprehensive immigration reform proposal introduced by Gutierrez and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) earlier this year], took all the enforcement parts of it and forgot to turn the page. It’s a book he didn’t finish reading.” (CQ Politics, “Divisive Border Bill Faces Tough Road,” Nov. 9, 2007.)

Without the legalization component, Shuler’s bill hops on one foot.  Worse, it hops right over the political cliff. As Gutierrez himself said, “we might as well put the Republicans in charge.”

How so?  The Shuler bill as proposed is closer to the punitive Sensenbrenner bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in December 2005 (HR 4437) than the comprehensive reform proposals favored by most Democrats.  And the Sensenbrenner bill was the infamous measure that led Latino immigrants and their allies to take to the streets in the largest protests in recent American history.  It is hard to imagine how the headline “Democrats for Sensenbrenner-lite” does anything but turn off Latino immigrants, the fastest growing group of new voters in the nation.

The fact that the bill is co-sponsored by the likes of Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Brian Bilbray (R-CA) only makes matters worse.  Tancredo, and not Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) or President Bush, is now the face of the GOP when it comes to immigration, especially in the Latino community.  As a Presidential candidate, he sure gets a lot of attention in the Spanish language press.  He calls Miami a “third world country,” repeatedly demands the arrest and deportation of Latino kids without status who have won honors in high school and want to go to college, and rails against the “invasion” by those from south of the border.  Bilbray has his own baggage.  Before returning to Congress, Bilbray was a lobbyist for the militant anti-immigrant group FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), and now chairs the equally controversial House Immigration Reform Caucus founded by Tancredo, a collection of mostly Republican Congressional Representatives who have been driving the nativist agenda in the House.

Shuler’s foray could turn out to be something of a political disaster for Democrats in 2008.  It could enhance the chances of an enforcement-only bill actually being approved in the House in 2008, a move that would be very unpopular with the growing number of Latino voters in key swing states such as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.  Isn’t it supposed to be Republicans that are sweating bullets about the Latino vote and the potential for a historic realignment of the electoral map?  This is what Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, had to say in a recent Washington Post column:

I have never seen an issue [immigration] where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more starkly at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself. At least five swing states that Bush carried in 2004 are rich in Hispanic voters -- Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Bush won Nevada by just over 20,000 votes. A substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats in these states could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans … Some in the party seem pleased. They should be terrified.

No wonder Brian Bilbray rushed to join Heath Shuler in the press conference announcing the bill.

Hold Back, or Lean Forward?

So, what should the Democratic leadership do?  Here’s our recommendation: Learn from recent elections.  Go on offense, propose measured solutions, and unite behind policies that will actually have a chance of working.  Be tough and smart.  Be for carrots and sticks.  Be for targeted enforcement at the border and in the workplace and for earned legalization.  Be for ending illegal immigration as we know it.  Recognize that the only way to make a system to prevent illegal hiring really work is to make verification and sanctions work and simultaneously provide a path to legal status for the current undocumented in the workforce.  Don’t drive workers further underground, bring them out of the shadows so they are known to the government, in the U.S. legally, and able to stand up for their labor rights alongside American workers.  Be for enforcement plus legalization, not enforcement-only. 

This approach is good politics and good policy.  It appeals to those voters who want a tough crackdown and voters who want a humane approach to those here illegally.  Beyond the hotheads, most voters want a practical solution that will work.  They want employers to be held to account, the border to be controlled, and the immigrants in the country to be legal.  They want taxes paid, laws respected, and workers protected.  If Democrats unite behind such a strategy, they can stand for what voters want and do so in a way that replicates the winning strategies of recent elections.  If they don’t, they could end up being me-too Republicans in more ways than one.

About The Author

Frank Sharry of National Immigration Forum is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.