Any casual observer of American politics over the last few years cannot help but recall the firestorm that recent debates over comprehensive immigration reform ignited. President Bush twice campaigned on a promise of a humane overhaul of our current immigration apparatus, and Congress assumed the mantle of leadership on this issue in the wake of his re-election. You might remember the House of Representatives passing a bill in late 2005 emphasizing border security and heightened enforcement overall. The Senate followed in 2006 with a more comprehensive plan that included border security, but also a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for the 12-20 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. Rather than hold a conference between the two bodies, Congress took its case to the people, and the verdict was alarmingly polarizing. While advocates of enhanced rights held marches throughout the country, vigilantes took matters into their own hands and patrolled the Southern border with Mexico. Americans of all stripes were torn over a topic that defines who were are as a nation.
After Democrats took control of Congress in the Fall of 2006, the debate began once more the following spring. Immigration demonstrations were staged throughout the country, though attendance dwindled. President Bush was tied down by historically low approval ratings, his political capital all but spent. The Senate courageously etched out another compromise that in mirrored their previous product in many ways, but appealed to only moderates, shedding support on each side of the political spectrum. A vote to end a filibuster failed. The House, recognizing the radioactivity of the issue, refused to even schedule debates on the issue.
In the aftermath, our immigration system remains as broken as ever, and we were told to wait until 2009 when a new Congress and President could work together to achieve the ever-elusive reforms. In the interim, a massive population of illegal immigrants remains on American soil, a permanent cast of "second-class" citizens. Employers are without a fresh supply of low-wage workers as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has staged successive raids on employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers. Select states and cities are burdened by the costs of providing human services for these individuals minus a reciprocal tax base. True, border security has been enhanced, with the construction of the infamous 700-foot wall in progress, but it may be doing a better job of keeping illegal immigrants from leaving than it does denying their entrance (The national economic downtown has unquestionably reduced the inward flow, too).
This brings us to the presidential contest between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, both participants in the debates recounted above. However, unlike any of the the previous nine issues addressed in this series, both candidates see eye-to-eye when it comes to immigration. Indeed, McCain co-sponsored the 2006 bill with Obama supporter Senator Ted Kennedy that the presumptive Democratic nominee rallied behind. Their respective plans are remarkably similar, and I will detail each below.
In order to understand McCain's stance on the issue, one must consider recent history. His outspoken support of comprehensive immigration reform hurt him among many conservatives and nearly cost him the Republican nomination. Last summer, when the debate came to a climax, it is no coincidence that McCain's Straight Talk Express was running on fumes. It was only when the issue receded to the rear view mirror that he staged a remarkable turnaround, and lingering resentment from some circles continues to temper Republican enthusiam from his candidacy.
Since this fallout, McCain has receded a bit on this issue, suggesting that he learned that Americans do not trust the federal government to address this issue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other debacles. To prove their mettle, Congress and the President need to first secure our national borders, he argues, and have this certified by the affected governors, McCain's Arizona included. Only then does McCain open the door for comprehensive reform.
Obama, but comparison, does not mandate any such preconditions, but instead promises the comprehensive reforms that he supported while serving as a senator. While emphasizing the importance of border security, his plan is premised on drawing illegal immigrants out of the proverbial shadows, allowing them to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English, obey the nation's laws, and go to the back of the line for citizenship.
McCain echoes these points, but places additional emphasis on weeding out those who committed crimes other than entering the country illegally, promising prosecution and deportation. He would also clamp down on fraud related to Social Security, require citizenship classes, and emphasize family reunification throughout the naturalization process.
Both candidates offer plans to speed up the process of apllying for citizenship, recognizing the bureaucratic malaise that cripples the system. Obama hopes to expedite the process through lower fees and more efficient background checks in order to naturalize more applicants each year. McCain begins by prosecuting what he terms "bad actor" employers, or those who knowingly hire undocumented workers, through an electronic verification system. This system would use a limited number of documents and biometric information, be swift in execution, and protect the identity of the individuals enduring screening.
McCain also articulates a detailed plan for temporary workers. High-skilled workers would be recruited from the cohorts of international students who flock to the U.S. for college, respond to employer and market demand, and enable extensions for those awaiting permanent resident status. Low-skilled non-agricultural workers would mostly assume temporary roles as mandated by market conditions. McCain promises enforcement of both humane labor laws, but also a mandated return to home countries for most of these temporary workers. He would apply similar priciples to agriculural workers, calling for a "non-bureaucratic, adaptable, useable" program.
Obama fails to address temporary worker programs in any detail. To his credit, his web site has been more thorough than McCain's throughout the duration of this study, though McCain has since filled in the details on many of these issues and his home page warrants a second look by Fanning the Flames readers. On this issue, at least on his web site, speaks in specifics, while Obama is locked in generalities.
Like many of the other domains we have tackled in this journey, however, it is the next president's broad vision, rather than his policy nuances, that will shape solutions crafted collectively with Congress come January 2009. Based on their records and stated objectives when it comes to immigration, voters have two candidates who are committed to comprehensive reform. Subtle differences emerge when parsing their respective plans, but the key ingredient in light of recent history will be leadership. This series has been short on this facet of candidate qualifications, but I will leave this assessment to voters.
A mere 90 days remain until the long-awaited November 4th election. Vice presidential picks will soon be announced, followed by the Democratic National Convention at the end of August and the Republican National Convention one week later during the first week of September. As the candidates gear up for the final sprint to the finish line, I urge you to peel yourself away from the horse race for a few spare moments, no matter how compelling it may be. Consider the candidates' qualifications for office. Evaluate their leadership potential. Most of all, dive deep into the issues, for these are the matters that land closest to home come Inauguration Day.