Candidates Agree On Reforming Immigration

Candidates agree on reforming immigration
Neither talks about it on campaign trail

By Michael Collins
The Ventura County Star (CA), October 20, 2008

Washington, DC — They may disagree over the war in Iraq or the fundamentals of the economy or any number of other pressing issues.

But when it comes to immigration reform a topic so volatile that, not long ago, it touched off massive street protests across the country there's not a lot of difference in the positions staked out by presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

'It's pretty much the same,' said David Rodriguez, a Latino activist from Ventura.

Indeed, immigration reform may be the singular issue of the 2008 presidential campaign in which Obama and McCain agree the most.

Both want to secure the nation's borders and voted in 2006 to build a 700-mile fence along the southern boundary with Mexico. Both argue that legal status should be offered to immigrants who entered the United States illegally as long as they learn English, pay fines and pass background checks.

Both promise to crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. But both also favor increasing the number of people who can enter the country legally to meet the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill.

There's also this: Neither candidate has devoted much time or energy on immigration reform while on the campaign trail, much to the dismay of those on both sides of the debate.

'Neither party seems to want to get close to this immigration issue right now because it's such an inflammatory thing,' said Bill Glenn, a former Border Patrol administrator who lives in Santa Paula and supports enforcement of immigration laws. 'It's risky territory.'

'Risk losing a lot of votes'

Rodriguez, who favors comprehensive immigration reform, said both candidates are 'purposely evading' the issue.

'Neither political party wants to alienate voters since Americans are so divided on the issue,' said Rodriguez, who serves as California deputy director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. 'They don't want to risk losing a lot of votes either way, either from the right or from Hispanics, who we think are going to be key to the election.'

It wasn't always like this.

McCain co-wrote legislation with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in 2005 that would have dramatically changed the nation's immigration laws.

The bill included many of the same proposals now supported by McCain and Obama: more border security, a get-tough approach on employers who hire undocumented workers, a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally.

But the McCain-Kennedy legislation ran into fierce resistance, especially from McCain's fellow Republicans, and died without ever being put to a vote.

McCain has taken the scars from that battle with him on the campaign trail. As the GOP nominee for president, he now says he understands that Americans want the nation's borders secured before they will embrace comprehensive immigration reform.

The proposal he's now pushing calls for shoring up the nation's borders first through the use of unmanned aircraft and spending more money on training facilities, staff and equipment.

Governors of border states would be required to certify that their borders are secured. Only then would other reforms, such as allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain citizenship, take effect.

'He's backing off'

Obama also supports additional personnel, infrastructure and technology to shore up the borders but has not said explicitly that must happen first.

McCain's border-security-first approach has led to some grumbling that he is backing away from his commitment to comprehensive reform to keep from alienating voters whom he'll need in the presidential election.

'McCain had some compassion going for him, but he's running for president, so he's backing off,' said Hank Lacayo, a Newbury Park resident who sits on the board of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a nonprofit Latino service organization.

But Rodriguez said his group doesn't see it that way.

'In fact,' Rodriguez said, 'our private meetings with him have been just the opposite. Every time he has committed to doing something, he does it, but he has just been unable to pass it in the United States Senate.'

The rest of McCain's and Obama's immigration platform is similar, give or take some subtle nuances.

McCain, for example, promises to implement a temporary guest-worker program that would allow immigrants to enter the country to work in jobs that employers can't fill. Specifically, he pledges to reform caps on the H-1B visa program so that they can rise and fall in response to market conditions. He also vows to increase the number of available green cards to reflect employer and employee demand.

Obama's plan doesn't explicitly mention a guest-worker program, but does call for increasing the number of people allowed in the United States legally to a level that keeps families together and meets the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill.

Hurting chances for reform

As for the workplace, both McCain and Obama favor using an electronic verification system to help employers determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.

Obama also argues that the United States should do more to promote economic development in Mexico, which he believes would keep immigrants from illegally crossing the border in search of jobs.

The two candidates' almost-identical positions on immigration may actually be hurting the chances for comprehensive reform, regardless of who moves into the White House in January, said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Because their positions are similar, neither candidate is pressing the issue, and because there is no debate over immigration reform, 'there is no shaping of public opinion toward their position,' said Camarota, whose Washington-based group favors limits on immigration.

The end result will likely mean that the candidate who wins won't be able to claim his election was a mandate for comprehensive reform. That, Camarota said, will make it hard to get a comprehensive bill through Congress.

'It leaves us basically where we were,' he said, 'a president who wants it, a Democratic Senate who wants it and (Congress) members who are terrified to vote for it.'


On immigration, rivals share moderate stances
By Tony Leys
The Des Moines Register, October 20, 2008