Obama adopts "get tough" frame on immigration

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In a recent op-ed in the Charlotte Observer (via Immigration Prof Blog), presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed the issue of immigration reform.  He is known to be supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here in the U.S.  Overall, I think he is the candidate with the best proposed policies on immigration, for the reasons I outlined here.  

But in reading his op-ed this week, I noticed a troubling development.

Back at the end of February, Sam Stein at HuffPost broke a story that raised some concerns in the SanctuarySphere about a study that was issued by a couple of left-leaning think tanks. 

Democrats may soon be taking a tougher public position on immigration, according to a confidential study put together by key think tanks close to the party leadership.

The study urges Democrats to adopt more rigid rhetoric when discussing immigration by encouraging office-holders to emphasize "requiring immigrants to become legal" rather than stressing border enforcement and the opening of a path to legalization for the undocumented already here.

. . .

Titled "Winning The Immigration Debate," the study was put together by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Center for American Progress. Its findings, which have been sent to Capitol Hill and have been part of briefing sessions in both the House and the Senate, are based off of polling conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates.

Implicit in the report is the notion that Democrats can win wider public support for immigration reform by framing the issue in harsher-sound verbiage and, perhaps, policy.

Dave Neiwert sounded the alarm bells at the time, concerned that this was another misguided effort to "out-Tancredo Tancredo," a strategy with as proven a track record of failure as anything we've seen in the Bush era.  Duke at Migra Matters had a good preemptive debunking of this strategy back in October. 

Let's take a look at the similarities between the study and Obama's recent op-ed:

The study:

It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country who are outside the system . . . . We must require illegal immigrants to become legal, and reform the laws so this can happen.

Obama's op-ed:

[W]e must require the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are already here, including more than 300,000 in North Carolina, to step out of the shadows and onto a path that includes the ability to earn citizenship by demonstrating a sound character, a commitment to America, and a strong work ethic.

We have to understand that many immigrants want to get right with the law. They work in their communities, pay taxes, and have become an integral part of our society.

While it's unrealistic to deport them, illegal entry cannot go unpunished. That's why we must require them to pay a fine, learn English, and get to the back of the line for citizenship behind those who came here legally.

The study:

This message places the focus where voters want it, on what's best for the United States, not what we can/should do for illegal immigrants.

Cecilia Muñoz, senior vice president of policy at the National Council of La Raza and chair of the board at CCIR, which commissioned the study, talked about the study when it was released (from Stein's post):

We are not asking people to be for legalization out of altruism. It is perfectly okay for them to be for legalization because that is what fixes the problem . . .

Obama's op-ed:

It's time to move beyond our broken politics and achieve real progress on immigration reform, not just for the sake of passing a bill, and not as a favor to immigrants, but so that we can finally address the concerns of the American people, and make real the hopes of all those who want nothing more than a chance at the American Dream. [emphasis mine]

Stein's post initially raised concerns about this change in strategy:

"There has been no consensus around the Democratic rhetoric in regard to immigration," said one party official who had knowledge of the report. "But it has usually been framed around opportunity, and it was less framed around this punishment rhetoric. We are going to require these people to become legal or we are going to deport [them]? It doesn't challenge the immigrant scapegoating direction of the conversation. It plays right into it."

Dave Neiwert expounded on this in his post:

The worst aspect of it is that this framing reinforces the themes about the criminality of undocumented immigrants and the whole "toughness" approach manufactured by both the nativist and the corporate right. If Democrats are going to play this game, they're going to be feeding directly into the same xenophobic anti-immigrant language of hate, constructed by the right, that has dominated the debate.

If progressives truly want to win this debate, they need to fundamentally change the language around it -- not reinforce the old right-wing frames.

. . .

There isn't actually anything in the specifics of the proposed platform on immigration that Stein describes that I object to: Indeed, talking about requiring immigrants to either take the path to citizenship offered them or to take other steps to obtain legal status is consistent with the rule-of-law approach I've discussed previously too.

But if it's going to be a point of emphasis, it simply has to be accompanied by a powerful dose of repudiation of the old right-wing frames -- a frank and serious discussion of the right-wing popular delusions about immigration, as well as an open embrace of Latinos' cultural contributions.

Making law enforcement the primary focus distorts the conversation and the debate. Progressives need to step back and think bigger on this.

While Obama does discuss the invaluable contributions immigrants have made to this country, and acknowledges that "many immigrants want to get right with the law," he has adopted the "requirement" language and enforcement-first tone that the "Winning The Immigration Debate" study promoted.  This, I feel, is a misstep, for the reasons that Neiwert has already put forward. 

Of all my undocumented clients, I have yet to meet one who doesn't desperately want to legalize his or her status here in the U.S.  My clients have agonized over their inability to "get right with the law."  Adopting this "get tough" frame reinforces the idea that most undocumented immigrants have something to hide or are worried about criminal prosecution.  We know that this is not true, that crime rates among immigrants are significantly lower than among native-born Americans.  Why can our purportedly progressive politicians not emphasize this fact instead of pushing forward the enforcement-only, Tancredo-lite policies that have failed so miserably so far?


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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on April 16, 2008 7:57 AM.

U.S. Immigration Policy Harms Children: Pro-Migrant Sanctuarysphere was the previous entry in this blog.

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