Position on immigration testing Democrats
GOP may try to exploit divisive issue
By Scott Helman
Boston Globe Staff
November 16, 2007
The stir in the Democratic presidential race created by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants may begin to ebb now that Spitzer this week abandoned the plan and Hillary Clinton said unequivocally that she opposes the idea.
But the two-week-long dispute, in which Clinton's rivals attacked her repeatedly for refusing to give a firm answer on Spitzer's measure, raised a question that is not going away: How will Democratic candidates position themselves as the immigration debate churns?
Illegal immigration is already a major flashpoint in the Republican primary, as the leading candidates clash over who would crack down the hardest. Rancor over the driver's license plan elevated the issue in the Democratic race, too, presenting a minefield for candidates as they engage voters worried about the economy and the direction of the country.
“It's rising in importance,” said Jill Derby, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Nevada, where Democratic presidential contenders gathered last night for their latest debate.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said during the debate that Americans are “justified in feeling frustrated” about illegal immigration because the Bush administration has done nothing to solve the issue. “It has become an extraordinary problem,” he said.
During a spirited discussion, he and the other Democrats sparred over the driver's license issue, but all said they support comprehensive immigration reform.
Polls suggest there are conflicting views among likely Democratic voters. Respondents indicated that they were far more concerned about healthcare, the war in Iraq, and the economy than about illegal immigration. But roughly three in 10 Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote, said in recent surveys that a candidate's position on immigration was “very important.” And the candidates themselves report receiving sharp-edged questions on the campaign trail, particularly in Iowa, where an influx of Hispanic immigrants working at meatpacking plants has inflamed passions.
“I'll be in the middle of talking about the war and healthcare, and everybody's cheering, and then some guy stands up in the back and says, 'What are you going to do about the illegals?' ” John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, told Globe editors recently.
In this climate, the Democratic presidential hopefuls are offering nuanced solutions that combine increased border security with a conditional path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the US illegally – elements of a comprehensive plan that President Bush failed to get through Congress earlier this year.
But there are distinctions among the candidates.
Obama supports giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants as a public safety measure, while Clinton and Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut do not. Edwards said in 2004 that he supported doing so, but his campaign says that he now supports the move only as part of an immigrant's path to citizenship. The candidates also differ on a guest worker program that would allow more foreigners to work in the country lawfully.