Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Democrat's shift right on immigration a mistake on many levels

Those of us who have followed the immigration debate over the last few years couldn't help but notice the rightward shift on immigration recently taken by the Democratic Party and its beltway allies in the quest for electoral victory. With the release of the party platform formulated in Denver, this shift now becomes party orthodoxy.

A recent article published by the Center for International Policy's, Americas Policy Program, a leading liberal international policy think tank, documents not only the origins of this "new framing", but looks at it's ultimate ramifications on the greater issue of reforming immigration policy in any meaningful way.

Having acknowledged that the immigration restrictionists are dominating the immigration debate, the Democratic Party and its allies are desperately seeking to reframe the immigration crisis. Their new language about immigration policy—"nation of laws," "rule of law," and "required legal status"—is popping up everywhere, from the pronouncements of immigrant-rights groups to the Democratic Party platform.

…The party doesn't back away from comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization for illegal immigrants. As if by rote, it includes the standard language about America being "a nation of immigrants." But the party also strikes a harsher stance than in the past. Trying to please all tendencies, the Democrats say that immigration reform should be "tough, practical, and humane."

Instead of offering an "earned path to citizenship," as it has in the past, the party is now proclaiming that illegal immigrants will be required to obey the law—with the emphasis on the verb "require."


"For the millions living here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules, we must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law," states the party's platform. "We support a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens."

The "get right with the law" framing is also evident in the recent shift of Democratic Party leaders and pro-immigration toward a dual vision of immigration reform. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other leading Democrats now echo the party line that America can be "both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws."

IRC-Americas Program


As noted in previous examinations of this "new framing," centrist Democrats, in league with mainstream Latino and immigrant-rights advocacy groups, miscalculated the political power of anti-immigrant messaging and abandoned the center in the debate, allowing anti-immigrant forces to shift it further to the right.

Central to the new Democratic framing is the concept of requiring immigrants to "get right with the law" rather than offering them a "pathway to citizenship."

Where did this new language come from?

Apparently from two progressive Beltway institutes close to the Democratic Party: Center for American Progress and America's Voice. These two organizations floated the "required" language in a few polls to determine how the party and immigration advocates should parse the immigration issue.

What's the number one goal of Americans with respect to the issue of illegal immigration? In their report "Winning the Immigration Issue: Requiring Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants," the pollsters state: "Hispanic and non-Hispanic voters agree that the most important goal in dealing with illegal immigration is to require illegal immigrants to become legal."

In addition to the "required" wording, the two other key elements of the Democratic Party messaging, according to the polling results, are:

* "The 'required legal status' proposal finds strong support provided there are conditions: paying taxes, learning English, passing a criminal background check, and going to the back of the citizenship line."
* "Focus on the role of employers. Democrats should favor strong enforcement not only at the border, but also in the workplace. The public believes the main cause of illegal immigration is that employers hire undocumented workers."

"The focus on requiring immigrants to become legal or face deportation if they fail to register gives Democrats a tough, seamless message about getting the immigration system under control and having respect for the rule of law," said the pollsters.

Headed by Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the pollsters observed: "Historically, the Democratic immigration message focused on providing an 'earned path to citizenship,' but this approach has no more appeal than a deportation agenda. However, the idea of requiring illegal immigrants to become legal generates a sharply different response. Nearly nine in ten voters favor a proposal to 'require illegal immigrants to become legal, obey U.S. laws, pay taxes, or face deportation ...'"

The polling report recommends the following as a concise summary of the party's position—a position largely reflected in the party's platform:

"We must be tough and smart to get our immigration system under control. It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country living outside the legal system. We must secure the border but we must also require illegal immigrants to register and become legal, pay their taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be sent home."

IRC-Americas Program


This framing, originally formulated by beltway spinmeisters, is now the cornerstone of the current Democratic immigration policy.

But, by capitulating to anti–immigrant forces and not only accepting their framing, but adopting it, Democrats have ultimately set up a scenario whereby even if they were to gain meaningful majorities in both houses of Congress and control of the Whitehouse it would be nearly impossible to put the genie back in the bottle and enact meaningful and humane immigration reform.

But there are risks to moving toward a law-and-order framing of immigration reform. Over the past few years, Democrats have signed on to the "enforcement-first" policy agenda of the Republicans in the belief that this would bolster the chances of achieving comprehensive reform.

What has occurred, however, is that the "enforcement-first" approach to immigration reform has become the "enforcement-only" immigration policy that immigration restrictionists have long advocated. Acceding to a law-and-order and security framing of the immigration crisis, the Democrats have given the ongoing crackdown greater legitimacy. Rather than improving the chances for comprehensive reform that includes legalization, it's likely that the Democrats have by their actions in Congress and their new rhetoric on the campaign trail reinforced a "rule of law" messaging that will make legalization still more difficult to achieve.

The "come out of the shadows and get right with the law" language of the Democratic Party furthers the restrictionist stereotyping of illegal immigrants as criminals and threats to society. Rather than new messaging, the party appears to be ceding to right-wing concepts of criminalization of immigrants and place the onus of the immigration mess on immigrants rather than on the system itself.

IRC-Americas Program


Ironically, in their quest inoculate themselves from Nativist political backlash, and hopefully craft a "sweet spot" in the immigration debate that could guarantee electoral victory, the Democrats appear to have misread the realities of Nativist political power and perhaps have put themselves on the wrong side of this issue.

A new report released by theProgressive States Network looks at the actual legislative successes of anti-immigrant legislation on the state level, and it’s power as a political wedge, and finds that despite all the media hype and bravado of Nativist advocates, anti-immigrant sentiments do not translate into legislative or electoral success.

The report, The Anti-Immigrant Movement that Failed: Positive Integration Policies by State Governments Still Far Outweigh Punitive Policies Aimed at New Immigrants, as its title implies, found that by and large, State governments have overwhelming rejected anti-immigrant measures – this despite all the media attention lavished on certain high-profile local initiatives like those in Hazelton or Farmers Branch.

The Misguided Media Hype over Anti-Immigrant Legislation: Despite much media hype, the supposed wave of anti-immigrant politics has amounted to a few punitive laws in a handful of states, even as most states have quietly been moving forward with positive, integrative approaches to new immigrants in their communities.

The Failed Use of Immigration as a "Wedge” Issue: The current hype around anti-immigrant policies is, unfortunately, about electoral politics. The media largely fell for the tactics of political opportunists who hoped to use the issue of immigration as a "wedge” issue, much as they have used gay marriage and other social issues to undermine progressive coalitions and support rightwing politicians during elections. Yet the result has largely been political failure for rightwing politicians trying to play the anti-immigrant political card.

The Success of Positive Immigration Policy: Many states, including those where most immigrants live, now provide in-state tuition (so-called DREAM Acts) for undocumented immigrants going to public universities. Others are promoting policies to integrate immigrants through English language instruction and assistance in navigating the citizenship process. A number of states are providing health insurance to undocumented children. And instead of trying to punish immigrant workers, states are increasingly working with native and immigrant workers to crack down on bad employers who are violating minimum wage, safety and workers compensation laws.

Highlighting Positive State Legislation for New Immigrants: In this report, we have provided a state-by-state summary of major immigrant-related policies, both punitive and integrative, enacted in the last few years. We divide states based on those policies into six categories, from integrative to punitive, and highlight charts and graphs that demonstrate that positive integrative policies are far more common in the states than negative punitive policies.

Progressive States Network


When the dust settled, the report found that only in those few states that were already dominated by right-wing legislatures were they able to manage to leverage enough support to pass anti-immigrant legislation, and that by far, the greatest number of immigration related bills nation-wide were those favorable to migrant interests.

With most 2008 state legislative sessions at an end, we can take a step back and make a few conclusions about what happened in the states on policies effecting the immigrant population:

• In a few states where the right-wing controlled the legislature, they jammed through some laws creating punitive sanctions against undocumented immigrants.

• However, in states where moderates or progressives had any significant influence, the momentum for anti-immigration legislation stalled and almost all anti-immigrant legislation failed to pass.

• In the largest states where most undocumented immigrants actually live -- California, Illinois, New York, Texas and Florida -- no significant anti-immigrant legislation was enacted this session or last.

• Largely ignored by the media, over the last few years, quite a few states have pioneered programs and laws to positively integrate new immigrants into our communities and address citizens' economic fears in ways that raise wage standards for everyone, immigrant and native worker alike.

• In fact, when you look at what policies states have actually enacted, most undocumented immigrants live in states that have enacted positive programs to integrate new immigrants and rejected punitive approaches to new immigrants.

…The bottom-line is that despite much media hype, the supposed wave of anti-immigrant politics has amounted to a few punitive laws in a handful of states, even as most states have quietly been moving forward with positive, integrative approaches to new immigrants in their communities. Many states, including those where most immigrants live, now provide in-state tuition (so-called DREAM Acts) for undocumented immigrants going to public universities. Others are promoting policies to integrate immigrants through English language instruction and assistance in navigating the citizenship process. A number of states are providing health insurance to undocumented children. And instead of trying to punish immigrant workers, states are increasingly working with native and immigrant workers to crack down on bad employers who are violating minimum wage, safety and workers compensation laws.

One reason bad legislation stalled in all but a handful of states in 2008 is that legislators and the public have increasingly recognized that scapegoating immigrants is not going to solve the economic pressure working families experience. The real problem is a far more pervasive one of employers violating the workplace rights of all workers, both native and immigrant.

…The current hype around anti-immigrant policies is, unfortunately, about electoral politics. It is true that there is a vocal minority of the public that has promoted anti-immigrant policies for years, much as they have on and off throughout American history. This has been especially true in a few states, especially those with little previous historical experience with immigration, that have experienced rapid immigrant population growth in recent years.

Yet with so few states actually passing anti-immigrant legislation, the remarkable thing is how much attention the media has given anti-immigrant politicians. The media largely fell for the tactics of political opportunists who hoped to use the issue of immigration as a "wedge” issue, much as they have used gay marriage and other social issues to undermine progressive coalitions and support rightwing politicians during elections. Politicians like Congressman Tom Tancredo championed anti-immigrant proposals at the federal level and conservative state politicians sought to promote similar policies for electoral gain. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty proposed a series of anti-immigrant executive orders earlier this year, a tactic that Javier Morillo-Alicea, President of SEIU Local 26, noted "has everything to do with the presidential race," since Pawlenty was angling for a slot as the Vice-Presidential nominee.

Yet the result has largely been political failure for rightwing politicians trying to play the anti-immigrant political card. In 2006, many analysts raised fears that anti-immigrant fervor would doom progressive candidates. Instead, progressives won big in those elections. In 2007, it was more of the same in elections in Virginia and New York where Democrats gained control of the Virginia Senate and expanded control in Long Island's Suffolk County, despite opponents trying to make political hay off of the immigration issue.

…Yet the media continued to fixate on the handful of states debating anti-immigrant policies, abetted by Lou Dobbs and politicians still hoping to stir up racial divisions in the population. In the end, however, only in state legislatures already dominated by rightwing leadership such as Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, and Utah were significant anti-immigrant policies able to make headway in 2008, just as they only made headway in similar rightwing-controlled legislatures like Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee in previous sessions. Everywhere else, states either stalled anti-immigrant bills or enacted positive policies to better integrate new immigrants, the latter a story almost completely overlooked by the national media.

Progessive States Network


In light of recent past history it would be wise for Democrats to re-evaluate their new found acceptance of the right-wing frames as advocated by those like Stan Greenberg and Americas Voice. Not only do they adversely effect the lives of 12 million undocumented migrants by re-enforcing the de-humanizing stereo-types of immigrant criminality, they will make it all the more difficult to enact real meaningful reform down the road – and there's a good chance that the whole strategy might blow up in Democrats faces when a vital swing vote this coming November later demands more from its leaders than platitudes and slogans ….can you say "Si se puede" Mr Greenberg?

1 comment:

shannah said...

The Progressive State Network report is interesting, but you can't just look at legislative acts. For instance, in Rhode Island, where i live and would probably be counted under the "states where progressives have some impact" [arguable, but that's a whole nother posting], yes, we did manage to stop the anti-immigrant bills proposed by right wing democrats, barely, but most of the worst elements were simply picked up in the form of an executive order by the governor. Judging by the calls to our hotline and cell phones, as well as word on the street and what we are seeing with our eyes, things are getting undeniably much worse.