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On Immigration, Democrats Dance Around the Details

Photo credit: Lauren Burke, wdcpix

While the Republican presidential candidates—with the exception of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) —outdo each other with promises to vaporize illegal immigrants, the Democratic candidates take a far less dramatic approach to the estimated 12 million immigrants now in the United States without documentation.

All three Democratic frontrunners, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and former senator John Edwards, adopt the concepts of a border barrier and a crack-down on employers. But they also talk about offering a path to citizenship to those already here.

Their party agrees. Polls show that immigration is more of a concern for Republicans than Democrats. For example, a poll by the University of Iowa, preceding the caucuses there, showed that 13.7 percent of Republicans considered immigration one of the most important issues facing the nation, but only 2.4 percent of Democrats saw it that way.

For most Republicans—here, again, with the big exception of McCain — normalization of status becomes “amnesty,” a blood-stirring taboo.

The Democrats hold what might be a more realistic view: you cannot find, round up and deport 12 million hidden people. And you could not ignore the accompanying economic disruption. So Democrats talk about a "path to citizenship" and point to the impracticality of their contenders’ proposals.

Yet, when it comes to the details, their proposals do not move much beyond the line marked by the Republicans.

Clinton, for example, calls for border controls and employer sanctions, and blames the federal government’s failure to control immigration for the costs incurred by local jurisdictions.

She considers the Republican call for mass deportation to be unworkable. She said as much in Iowa:

The best estimates I have are that if we even tried to round up 12-to-14 million people it would cost at least 200 billion dollars, it would take tens of thousands of new federal law enforcement officials. It would take a convoy of 200,000 buses stretching 1,700 miles and it would take a lot of invasion of your privacy rights. Because if we were serious about rounding everybody up—and they would have to knock on every door of every business and every home throughout Iowa and throughout America—I think Americans would stand for that for about a nanosecond.

But when it comes to implementation, her alternative begins to look like an impossibly deferred solution:

…if they have been here working, if they have not gotten into trouble, then I think we have to be really hard and say, “Look, you came here illegally and here’s what you have to do if you expect to stay…You have to pay back taxes, and I mean all back taxes…you have to pay a fine, you have to try to learn English, and you have to wait in line, and you may have to wait in line for 10, 12, 15 years. You have to stay out of trouble. You have to be productive. And at the end of that period you could be eligible to be a citizen.”

But what happens while applicants wait in line for 15 years while learning English and being productive to become—maybe—eligible for citizenship?

Do they receive work permits and Social Security numbers? In what status: guest worker, permanent resident, temporary protection? What would be acceptable evidence of income over a period of years to allow computation of back taxes?

Clinton was also talking about addressing the circumstances in other countries that push people to emigrate:

“I’m going to see what I can do to get all of those countries to our South, all the leaders, to create more jobs for their people—people would not leave their families, they would not leave their villages, if they thought they had a decent shot at a better life…”

Obama’s statement on immigration, issued just before the Iowa caucuses, coincides neatly with Clinton’s positions—though he mentions the need for family unification and targeting workers with skills in demand, and she does not. Here is that list:

For his part, Edwards approaches immigration much like Clinton and Obama. Like the latter, he proposes an increase in the number of visas available for legal migration. At the Univision debate in Spanish in September 2007, he said:

And I think that’s what the focus should be on: more Border Patrol, better use of technology, and absolutely a path to earn citizenship for those who are living here and who are undocumented. But we also have to get at the underlying causes of the migration from Mexico, which means addressing the issue of poverty, education, health, the reason that so many are coming to the US.

In the end, immigration is among the issues generating the most heat and least light in the campaign.

On the Republican side, it has become a matter of appeals to nativism and of exaggerated threats, whether of terrorist infiltration or job loss.

On the Democratic side, candidates are using kinder and gentler words—even when drawing from a vocabulary set by their opponents—and vague promises of an eventual path to citizenship.

For both sides, the very large elephant remains in the living room, awaiting a decision on its fate, while it cleans up around the house, takes care of the children and goes out to work on the fields.

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