Will Immigration Return as a Major Electoral Issue?

>> Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Simmering below the surface of American politics for the last few decades has been the topic of Illegal immigration. After the attempt at comprehensive reform fell apart the issue seems to have dropped off the table. However I doubt that this will be the case for the entire duration of the election season. I predict illegal immigration will be making a return as a major electoral issue.

The first thing that makes me believe that immigration will return as an issue is that it is something that needs to be dealt with. As a country we need to have a legitimate policy in place and the one we have now creates only problems. Our policy has created a human rights issue with virtual slavery for a segment of the population. Both sides want to see something done on this issue though what should be done is a matter of dispute. The issue seems to be bigger with the right wing than it does with liberals on the left but if the right starts hammering on the issue the left will have no choice to respond.

Evidence of the importance of immigration is the multitude of articles on the subject that come out in major papers every week. There are articles about the new electronic border fence and about immigration in Spain. There are also articles that deal with the local tactics taken by police agencies around the country. Immigration is an issue that simmers below the surface and bubbles to the surface on a regular basis.

Its no real wonder though as to why the issue has become so important. The answer comes down to economics and economic insecurity. In times when the economy heads south the lower wage unskilled jobs dry up. This causes conflict and scapegoating in the lower economic groups. These groups are more than likely minority groups and that causes more tension. Immigration becomes a wedge issue at that point allowing one group to be pitted against another, tailor made GOP politics.

There are factors that have developed that will influence the likelihood that immigration becomes an issue. The first is the nomination of John McCain. John McCain made some political hay when he joined with Ted Kennedy to work on comprehensive immigration reform. He took major flak from the right for this and it is cited as a major cause in his near elimination from the GOP primary last year. After that he backed off the topic and became a very “border first” candidate talking about securing the border and not much else. The issue of immigration was a major one in the GOP primary with most of the candidates running on the deport them all platform.

After securing the nomination Sen. McCain seems to want to get back to the idea of comprehensive immigration. In March at a speech in Silicon Valley California McCain had this to say,

“I believe we have to secure our borders, and I think most Americans agree with that, because it’s a matter of national security. But we must enact comprehensive immigration reform. We must make it a top agenda item if we don’t do it before, and we probably won’t, a little straight talk, as of January 2009.”

McCain seems to be committed to this, at least in front of a friendly audience. The second thing about McCain that makes me believe he will be very interested in using immigration as his issue is his perception that the Latino community is vulnerable to being pulled away from the Dems. The catalyst for this line of thought was the Democratic Primary where Hillary Clinton won a significant majority of the Latino Vote versus Obama. This is not a guarantee that they will vote for McCain but it does offer a better chance than if they had all voted for Obama.

Targeting Latino voters also plays into the overall McCain strategy of appealing to disenchanted Dems who are former Clinton voters angry at her defeat. McCain’s own strategy video highlighted how his campaign perceives his strength on immigration and how he wants to target these soft Dems. Another reason to target these Latino and soft Dems is that is also combines well with his idea that California is vulnerable.

There have been rumblings that the McCain camp thinks California is vulnerable because of a combination of independents, who the McCain camp thinks he can win, Latinos and, angry Clinton voters. It might end up being his white whale. Regardless of whether he goes after California, winning a large section of the Latino vote helps him in New Mexico and also helps him protect any potential issues in Texas.

Admittedly, there are issues with McCain’s potential use of immigration as an issue. The first is that the right hates the position that McCain would take to go after the Latino vote. McCain has shown a remarkable unwillingness to take stands against the GOP since assuming the nomination. Then again Bush was on the side of immigration reform so it would be consistent with his attempts to carry out a third Bush term.

One complication for the introduction of immigration as a major issue is that Obama is in a strong position substantively on this issue. Obama has a very detailed plan on the issue of immigration that McCain would have a more difficult time attacking. McCain has strength on the issue but Obama does not have weakness and this might make the issue less attractive. The only weakness that Obama has is his willingness to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. McCain actually lacks a real plan although he could always revive his senate bill.

Another reason standing in the way of immigration as a major issue is that the Republican party as a whole is very much against McCain’s probable position. This would force the down ticket Republicans to break with McCain. A win for McCain but a loss for them as they look like the typical close minded nativists they are.

Despite the negative problems for McCain on the issue I do think immigration will return. He needs something to use as an issue where he is perceived positively. Iraq is not a winner for him. Economics are not good for him. Immigration though might be. It allows him to be a maverick and to reinforce that part of his image. He can attack on the driver’s license issue and might lure some Latino support. Immigration will return as an issue.


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