Immigration is said to be a divisive issue, but it really isn’t. Large majorities of Americans favor legal immigration, and large majorities oppose illegal immigration.
But the failure to control the process has created a tiger that periodically pounces onto the national stage. John McCain and Barack Obama both have their positions on immigration – many similar, some different. And as always with this issue, the details are everything.
John McCain is forever linked to the sweeping immigration reform that went down in flames last year and which Obama also backed. It promised to beef up enforcement of immigration law and put 12 million illegal aliens on the path to citizenship. The fatal flaw in the “grand bargain” was not its two-pronged approach, but its inability to convince voters that the enforcement part would be respected. (They were right to be skeptical.)
McCain’s move to an enforcement first stance thus better fits popular sentiment. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll finds American voters believing, by a 63 percent to 28 percent margin, that it’s more important to control the border than resolve the status of people here illegally.
Obama doesn’t back “enforcement first.” Like McCain, he does endorse two essential ingredients for applying the law: an electronic system to verify a job applicant’s right to work in the United States and stiffer penalties on employers who hire illegals. But our history with immigration reform is littered with last-minute sabotaging of enforcement mechanisms. Obama’s past support for giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens does not build faith in his desire to seriously apply the law.
Enforcement-first does not necessarily mean enforcement only. Once the public feels confident that the federal government means business about stopping future illegal immigration, it will accept an amnesty for those who came here in more lax times.
One “grand bargain” provision was highly objectionable to everyone but employers of cheap labor: It was a big new temporary-worker program to fill jobs that are not temporary in nature. McCain is still hot for a guest-worker program, and Obama apparently supports some version of it. Too bad.
On the plus side, the bill would have moved us away from a family-based system for allocating “green cards” to one that favors workers with needed skills. Point systems based on education are used in Canada and Europe. McCain supports this idea, and Obama opposes it (as do some Latino advocates).
Two of the “tough” positions that the candidates agree on happen to be pointless. Least attractive is their support for the border fence between the United States and Mexico. Nearly half of America’s illegal immigrants come here through the front door but overstay their visas. The only serious way to deter illegal immigrants is to crack down on the people who employ them. A fence, wall – call it what you will – is an unfortunate symbol to put in the face of our neighbor Mexico. And it’s no thing of beauty on this side, either.
Both candidates have signed on to the populist demand that immigrants be able to speak English. But the reality is that few poor immigrants have ever mastered English – whether they were Germans immigrating to the Dakotas or Italians populating the Little Italys of American cities. You don’t need good English to plow fields or cut meat. The important thing is that the immigrants’ children learn English. They did it then, and they’re obviously doing it now.
There is no demagoguefree zone on immigration, but the direction of majority opinion is pretty clear. Americans can live with another amnesty, as long as it’s the last. The rest of the debate, if the candidates want one, is with special interests.
©2008 The Providence Journal Co.