Sunday, January 13, 2008

Immigrants and Illegals

For months, bloggers have returned again and again to the issue of the growing Hispanic population in the US and what a minefield this is for Democrats. The Republicans have all signed on to the Nativist Express, and will be yapping about "illegals" (i.e., anyone who speaks with a Spanish accent and isn't a Republican Party donor) ad nauseum through the election.

For the Democrats, there is a tougher path to tread. On the one hand, they have no interest in alienating (yes, it's a pun, but also an invitation to think on the implication of the term) anyone who is an immigrant or who has immigrants in their immediate family. My sister-in-law is from Mexico, my in-laws are Portuguese, and various more distant family members have married people from all over the globe. Many of my friends are immigrants and/or are married/related to immigrants. One of my great-grandparents was an illegal imigrant from Russia who lived in fear of deportation during the Red Scare.

At the same time, the US cannot simply let anyone set up camp who happens to get across our borders. Bleeding liberal hearts not withstanding, citizenship is only a right for those who are born here. That the US allows people to naturalize is an innovation, the shift from jus sanguinis (right of blood) to jus soli (right of soil) as the basis for inclusion and protection remaining unusual in the world. The power to include means the necessity of excluding, and this is not a wrong or unethical thing. The political challenge is to find the right balance of law, policy and practice to bring newcomers into the polity. The danger comes because there are few electoral penalties (so far) to Democrats who beat the nativist drum during elections and then end up doing half-assed measures when in office because they have been trapped in their campaign rhetoric.

I think that changes with the 2008 elections. After the protests last year and with the influence of Arizona, California and Colorado in the Super Tuesday primary, how candidates view and relate to Hispanic non-citizens - whether as immigrants or as illegals - is going to have a powerful effect on electoral results. The Republicans, as indicated above, have already made their case, which is to demonize these Hispanics as illegals. For Democrats, the long-term game must be to dedicate themselves to framing the issue as one of managing immigration. It's not enough to be less batshit crazy and xenophobic than the Republicans on this one. To win and hold an Hispanic voting majority, the Democrats will have to commit to a clear path for inclusion and a concomitant rejection of the nativist script.


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