Tuesday, April 23, 2024

In the Face of Economic Uncertainty,Immigration Issue has Become a Non-Issue on the Campaign Trail

Just a year ago, immigration was a volatile political issue that consumed Congress and ignited passions among Americans on both sides of the debate.

These days the presidential candidates barely mention the topic on the campaign trail. The nation’s fundamental immigration problems have not been fixed. And with the economy contracting, Americans are likely to feel more discomfort about welcoming immigrants. But Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have been all but silent on immigration. That’s partly because their positions are not far apart, but it’s also because both candidates want to duck attacks from their critics. “It’s such a controversial issue that both sides recognize however many (voters) you gain with your position, you’ll lose almost as many,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “There’s consensus in the country that something needs to be done, but there’s no consensus on what needs to be done.”

The two candidates do have differences on immigration, however, and the way they address the issue says something about their beliefs and approaches to politics.

In 2006, McCain joined Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to sponsor an immigration overhaul that would have included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a temporary guest worker program to admit future immigrants, and tougher workplace and border enforcement. The bill passed the Senate but wasn’t taken up by the House. A similar bill was introduced in 2007 but again failed to pass. In his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, the senator from Arizona backed away from the 2007 bill after being roundly booed by conservative Republicans. Now McCain says he would secure the border before tackling any other element of the plan. “I have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first,” McCain told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

Obama, in contrast, has stuck to his support for comprehensive immigration overhaul similar to the original McCain-Kennedy bill. He calls for robust enforcement at the border and on the job but also stresses the need to bring undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows.” Obama adds that the United States can deter illegal immigration by helping strengthen the economy of Mexico, the source of more than half of America’s unauthorized immigrants. McCain has not focused on that approach.

Immigration experts see little difference between the candidates on highly skilled immigration.

Barry Chiswick, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says he believes the U.S. economy needs more high-skilled immigrants, rather than an immigration system that emphasizes family reunification visas. But he doubts either candidate will go there. “From a politician’s point of view, it would take tremendous courage to say we’re taking in too many relatives and we should take more high-skilled workers,” he said. “Every ethnic constituency wants visas based on kinship.”

The candidates appear to diverge, though, on plans for low-skilled workers, who have few legal avenues to enter the United States but who have found plenty of jobs here in recent years. McCain endorses a temporary guest-worker program that would respond to labor market demand in the United States and require workers to return to their home countries after a set period. Obama favors a plan that would ensure full labor rights for temporary workers and green cards for those who choose to stay in the United States, a stance favored by many labor unions to avoid creating two classes of workers.

The candidates also appear divided on the issue of immigration raids. Both have called for a crackdown on employers who skirt the law and employ illegal immigrants. But Obama has criticized recent raids for singling out workers rather than employers, while McCain has not. Representative Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad (San Diego County), who chairs the conservative House immigration caucus, is convinced the Arizona senator will be tougher about enforcement. “Do the candidates support the raids? Do they believe workplace enforcement is the way? That will be the litmus test,” Bilbray said. “I really believe a President McCain will maintain an effort at cracking down on illegal employers, where I think a President Obama would find reasons not to focus on enforcement. “Obama must walk a tightrope on the question of immigration raids, Meissner said. “Obviously Obama wants to appeal to Latino voters, and they’re particularly sensitive to that issue. But Obama also has to appeal to working-class voters, white people, who are very sensitive to the question of illegal immigration and the relationship that has to jobs. And they tend to feel strongly about the laws being enforced.”

On the issue of how to deal with illegal immigrants who are already in the country the candidates seem to both agree that a path to legalization is needed, but Senator McCain continues to emphasize this path can only exist after the border has been secured. Senator McCain First supported, then opposed the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) but says he favors expedited legal status for undocumented immigrants brought here as minors. While Senator Obama supports the DREAM Act, which offers citizenship to college-bound young people brought to the United States illegally as children. Senator McCain advocates for extending legal immigration status to undocumented immigrants who learn English, pay a fine and back taxes, pass a citizenship course, and get in line behind other “green card” applicants. Senator Obama advocates for offering legal status to otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants if they pay a fine and back taxes, admit they’ve broken the law, learn English and go to the back of the line. They both seem to agree that undocumented immigrants must meet certain requirements in order to legalize their status.

Despite the harsh rhetoric that has flared over immigration during the past few years, some observers believe there is broad-based support among voters for the comprehensive immigration overhaul that both candidates generally favor. “This is not the third rail of American politics,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic strategy group that found broad support for comprehensive immigration reform in an August poll in four swing states.

Perhaps the biggest determinant of how the next president handles immigration is the condition of the U.S. economy in the coming months. This country has historically welcomed immigrants in times of prosperity and turned them away when times were tough, said Daniel Tichenor, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “It’s a safe bet that both McCain and Obama would be pro-immigration, pro-immigrant presidents,” Tichenor said. “But both are going to have to tread lightly if the economy continues to tank. I don’t know any president who would want to dramatically expand the number of legal (immigrant) admissions during times when we have economic jitters.”

This is perhaps the most worrisome conclusion when it comes to addressing illegal immigration in this country. It is very possible that in the same way the issue has become buried beneath the financial crisis during the election, it will become buried beneath the financial crisis that will inevitably become the focus of the next administration. This leaves immigrants who are also suffering during these difficult financial times at a great disadvantage. Perhaps if there were a way to link addressing illegal immigration to economic prosperity, the same way it was linked with national security, politicians would be forced to take action sooner rather than later.

San Francisco Chronicle