Immigration policy takes low profile in political campaigns
By Matt O'Brien
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), September 10, 2008
If voters were looking for answers about how the next president will handle the nation's complicated immigration system, they found few clues in dozens of convention and stump speeches so far this season.
Apart from a brief anecdote referencing a 'Latina daughter of migrant workers,' John McCain and his surrogates made almost no mention of immigration at the Republican National Convention last week.
'We're all God's children and we're all Americans,' McCain said in his acceptance speech, describing the unnamed Latina and a 'boy whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower' as people who deserve to reach their potential.
Democrats also avoided immigration policy talk at their convention a week earlier.
Barack Obama kept his views on the hot-button topic to one sentence of his acceptance speech, saying 'passions fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.'
Neither the candidates, nor any of their chosen speakers, discussed what to do about the estimated 11 million to 12 million people living in the country illegally. If there were any clues on immigration policy, they were found lodged in the written platforms that both parties unveiled at their conventions.
'America has always been a nation of immigrants,' began a roughly 300-word section on immigration in the Democratic platform. A more detailed Republican version surpassed 800 words and opened with a different tone: 'Immigration policy is a national security issue, for which we have one test: Does it serve the national interest?'
Getting more specific, both parties emphasized more border security, but only the Republicans promised a border fence to be completed quickly.
'On one level, their policies are clear and on another they're not, because who knows what securing the border means,' said Irene Bloemraad, a sociology professor who studies immigration at the University of California, Berkeley.
Bloemraad said she was not surprised that immigration has taken such a low profile in the campaigns because neither candidate wants to turn off certain constituents.
Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party, argues that McCain has more credibility on immigration issues because he was the co-sponsor of a 2005 immigration bill, amended in 2006 and 2007 but never enacted, that would have overhauled the immigration system.
'He put his name to a comprehensive plan. He was willing to take a political risk,' Barajas said.
But that McCain bill, which would have provided a path to legal residency for many of the nation's illegal immigrants, was largely repudiated in the Republican platform unveiled last week.
The Democratic platform maintains that a path to legalization could be possible if undocumented immigrants are in good standing, pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English and 'go to the back of the line.'
The Republican platform, on the other hand, is starkly against it.
'We oppose amnesty,' the platform says.
In one of the only mentions of immigration policy in the Democratic convention, Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, used that change of policy to criticize McCain, saying, 'Candidate McCain says he would now vote against the immigration bill that Senator McCain wrote. Are you kidding? Talk about being for it before you're against it.'
But Barajas said it is better to learn one's lesson, as McCain has done, than to do nothing.
'He's been very upfront about it,' Barajas said. 'People are asking to make sure we secure the borders first.'
Four years ago, President Bush's re-election platform made a 'temporary worker' plan, or guest worker plan, a key piece of its agenda. 'This new program would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of the shadows and to participate legally in America's economy,' the 2004 Republican platform said.
This year, neither party makes any mention of guest workers, and the Republican platform is more focused on punitive measures, emphasizing its opposition to in-state tuition rates and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and also proposing to deny federal funds to 'self-described sanctuary cities.'
The debate so far has left some groups, from immigration restrictionists to Minutemen and immigrant advocates, frustrated by the lack of dialogue and hoping for more candor before Nov. 4.
'I have noticed that neither party is addressing issues of immigrant rights at all,' said Renee Saucedo, organizer with La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco. 'It's not too surprising, in view of the fact that the Democrats are afraid to push forward a true immigrant rights agenda that addresses the need for legalization instead of punitive measures like enforcement.'