Friday, February 29, 2008

Talking immigration

-- by Dave

The progressive conversation on immigration I've been hoping to spark has been inching forward, I think, thanks in part to Kyle de Beausset's response (also carried at Culture Kitchen).

I think Kyle's right that there has been a component missing from the conversation so far: a global one, as opposed to simply a pan-American one (in the broadest sense of the term). Part of the reason I've avoided it is that it introduces an exponential level of complexity to the question -- but obviously, it needs to be discussed. And I hope to take up the matter in a few days.

But today I'm wondering if the conversation isn't about to take a step or three backwards, due to a Huffington Post report from Sam Stein outlining a change in framing being considered by Democrats:
Democrats may soon be taking a tougher public position on immigration, according to a confidential study put together by key think tanks close to the party leadership.

The study urges Democrats to adopt more rigid rhetoric when discussing immigration by encouraging office-holders to emphasize "requiring immigrants to become legal" rather than stressing border enforcement and the opening of a path to legalization for the undocumented already here.

Implicit in the report is the notion that Democrats can win wider public support for immigration reform by framing the issue in harsher-sound verbiage and, perhaps, policy.

This message places the focus where voters want it, on what's best for the United States, not what we can/should do for illegal immigrants.


Titled "Winning The Immigration Debate," the study was put together by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Center for American Progress. Its findings, which have been sent to Capitol Hill and have been part of briefing sessions in both the House and the Senate, are based off of polling conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates.

Taken as a whole, the report presents a new prism through which the Democrats should approach the immigration debate. "It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country who are outside the system," it reads. "We must require illegal immigrants to become legal, and reform the laws so this can happen."

Polling for the study revealed that a larger swath of the public was supportive of "requiring" undocumented immigrants already in the country to normalize their status than there was for only offering them legalization as an option. In addition, the report pushes Democrats to argue that immigrants should be required to pay taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks to remain in the country. Those who have a criminal record should be deported. All of these policies were included in last year's immigration reform compromise legislation, which ultimately failed.

I'm sure these polling results are accurate as far as they go. But there are principles at stake here which go well beyond reading the public's mood. One can sell one's soul for the sake of short-term gain, and there's a risk that liberals in general will be doing so if they pursue this course en toto.

The worst aspect of it is that this framing reinforces the themes about the criminality of undocumented immigrants and the whole "toughness" approach manufactured by both the nativist and the corporate right. If Democrats are going to play this game, they're going to be feeding directly into the same xenophobic anti-immigrant language of hate, constructed by the right, that has dominated the debate.

If progressives truly want to win this debate, they need to fundamentally change the language around it -- not reinforce the old right-wing frames.

As Stein notes, the report has already raised some concern within party circles:
"There has been no consensus around the Democratic rhetoric in regard to immigration," said one party official who had knowledge of the report. "But it has usually been framed around opportunity, and it was less framed around this punishment rhetoric. We are going to require these people to become legal or we are going to deport [them]? It doesn't challenge the immigrant scapegoating direction of the conversation. It plays right into it."

It's perhaps useful for Democrats to remember what John McCain's position on immigration is:
"Q: Will you pledge to veto any immigration bill that involves amnesty?

A: Yes, of course, and we never proposed amnesty. But then you've still got two other aspects of this issue that have to be resolved as well. We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well. And they need some protection under the law; they need some of our love and compassion. I want to assure you that I'll enforce the borders first. We'll solve this immigration problem."

Do Democrats really want to come out positioning themselves to the right of McCain on immigration? Is that where progressive think tanks want to wind up?

In a lot of respects, McCain frames the issue correctly: Yes, let's enforce the borders, let's enforce the laws, and let's get people on a path to citizenship. But most of all, let's not do it in a way that demonizes or belittles or criminalizes them. This is all about making Amerioa stronger and better, and making American democratic values work.

There isn't actually anything in the specifics of the proposed platform on immigration that Stein describes that I object to: Indeed, talking about requiring immigrants to either take the path to citizenship offered them or to take other steps to obtain legal status is consistent with the rule-of-law approach I've discussed previously too.

But if it's going to be a point of emphasis, it simply has to be accompanied by a powerful dose of repudiation of the old right-wing frames -- a frank and serious discussion of the right-wing popular delusions about immigration, as well as an open embrace of Latinos' cultural contributions.

Making law enforcement the primary focus distorts the conversation and the debate. Progressives need to step back and think bigger on this.

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