As one who's had more then my share of immigration debates over on the orange board and other blogs, I've come to the realization that no matter how much this topic is discussed, trying to change peoples minds on the subject is nearly impossible. Positions seem to be so entrenched, that rational discourse on the subject at times appears hopeless. It's amazing that when discussing just about any other topic we as progressives will share a common philosophy, or at the least a respect for differing opinions, but mention the word "immigration" and sparks will fly.
Under normal circumstances I would be the first to "agree to disagree", but on this issue our inability to come to even a semblance of consensus could cost us dearly in upcoming election cycles.
Personally I favor complete unrestricted immigration, amnesty, and economic development programs for those countries whose people feel the need to flee in order to survive. But, as a pragmatist, my personal views are not important to this debate. Polls show that the majority of Americans favor some sort of crackdown on illegal immigration. The reasons for this sentiment vary from economic and social concerns to security issues and for some, I'm afraid to say, racism. More and more we hear about "Broken Borders," the "Death of the West" and the loss of "...Americas national identity."
Against this backdrop, it is inevitable that one of the major political parties will eventually take up the anti-immigration mantra. The problem we face as Democrats is that we are extremely divided on this issue. If we fail to come up with a fair, practical and humane plan to deal with immigration that addresses everyone's concerns, the division will only be exacerbated, resulting in an irreparable rift within the party.
It's quite evident that Frank Luntz and Carl Rove can read polls with the best of them, and it would be naïve to believe that they would not attempt to take political advantage of this sentiment. If they decide to become the "anti-immigration" party, they will distil this very complex issue down to a simple "us versus them" message. The windfall for them is that they can craft a message whereby illegal immigrants become scapegoats for every administration failure, from a faltering economy and job loss, to terrorism. This plan would also allow them to peel off whole segments of traditional blue collar Democrats leaving the party mortally weakened. The remnants could then be painted as "weak," "un-American" and "looking very French" for supporting "foreigners" over "real Americans".
If the Democrats were to take up the anti-immigration mantra, the picture would be even bleaker. The results would be catastrophic. The party might pick up some moderate and working class Republicans, but it would alienate a large segment of its liberal base and more importantly lose the moral high ground it has always had claim to.
In general I think immigration sentiment seems to break down into three general groups within the Democratic Party. Although I must add a caveat here that I am oversimplify and using very broad strokes, their basic philosophies can be summed up as:
Closed Border Advocates: Those that generally feel that illegal immigration represents a threat to America both economically and socially. They feel that undocumented immigrants not only depress wages and take jobs from American workers, but also put undo stresses on our social service and education systems. They believe that there are mechanisms in place already for those who want to enter this country legally and immigrants should go through these proper channels.
Generally prefer stricter enforcement of the current immigration laws if not the strengthening of them. They see employers who hire un-documented immigrants as equally culpable and prefer higher penalties for employing them.
Economic Development Advocates: Those that believe that illegal immigration is a direct result of failures in the economic development and political policies in foreign countries. They feel that the only way to prevent illegal immigration is to treat its root causes, such as poverty, lack of education, political unrest, governmental abuse and corruption.
Generally prefer an approach that includes changing American foreign policy to foster economic development, coupled with a free trade policy that includes human rights, environmental and worker protections. They believe that over time, improving the situation on the ground in foreign countries would eliminate the conditions that encourage illegal immigration.
Open Border Advocates: Those that believe that continuous immigration is a natural state that has been occurring in America since before colonial times. That immigration has always been one of the chief contributing factors to America's success, and is impossible to prevent. They believe that the American dream has an overpowering appeal that will always draw new immigrants to its shores. They feel that the problem of illegal immigration is a direct result of the relatively modern restrictions placed upon the free flow of immigration.
Generally prefer changes in immigration policy that would make it easier for immigrants to enter and work in the country legally, by eliminating most restrictions. They would couple this with a more efficient system for documentation and naturalization.
From a completely pragmatic point of view we need to start to find a way to meld all three of these seemingly contradictory views into one coherent policy. A policy that addresses the concerns of those who feel their livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened. A policy that takes into account that immigration has always played a vital part in the growth and prosperity of this nation. A plan that recognizes that America and its policies have immense effects throughout the world and can do great good or cause great evil. A policy that is fair, practical, compassionate and humane. If we don't, I fear 2006 and 2008 will look a lot like 2000 and 2004.
Thursday, October 27, 2005