Given the current state of the U.S. economy, it surprises me that not more is said about immigration on all the major news networks. I see a silver lining during this economic crisis for immigration reform, thinking back to a story in the CQ by Karoun Demirjian, "Immigration: The Jobs Factor." While some might feel that opposition to comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) might become more intense during an economic crisis, there is reason to believe that opposition could actually lose momentum. Politically, the economic crisis might actually provide some cover for CIR negotiations, and Members of Congress might have more leeway to discuss the issue thanks to the focus on the economy.
Additionally, immigration has been an issue of top concern among Hispanics. What I hear from many Hispanic voters who call in to Spanish language radio or tv shows and in my community is that they are skeptical as to whether either candidate will deliver on CIR. Unlike McCain, who has abandoned the Hispanic community on immigration, Obama has been able to make it clear to Hispanics that he is committed to passing CIR, which has largely led to his over 30 point lead among this demographic. However, were he to win this election, I think he would just as easily lose this demographic if he did not deliver on this promise. It's also important to remember that members of Congress up for reelection in 2010 have much more to lose by putting off immigration reform. Polling indicates that voters place the blame of the broken immigration system on Congress by an overwhelming majority. Therefore, taking on the issue would change the perception of a do-nothing Congress.
Tthe mantra that emerged out of the failure of last summer's congressional immigration plan - "secure the borders first" - is losing its momentum. With the current economic crisis leading to the number of undocumented immigrants declining, it's becoming clear that the "magnet" of undocumented immigration is being eliminated. Which gives those of us for CIR an opening to discuss, what comes next?
The next President will have to recognize the challenges ahead:
1) Building a large enough coalition in Congress. Even with the expected Democratic gains in both chambers, he will have to work with Members from the anti-immigrant House Immigration Reform Caucus, which backs enforcement-only, as well as with Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the "Blue Dog" Caucus.
2) Growing administrative challenges. As stated by Marshall Fitz, Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, "It's not clear how much change Sen. McCain could make within DHS, because certainly he would be in a very politically compromised position, given where his party is on these issues." But that's not to say Sen. Obama will have complete flexibility in regards to halting or limiting enforcement measures.
3) The next White House will inherit a badly overburdened immigration court system.
4) Reform costs money. At a time when federal revenue will be contracting on a significant scale. That makes it, in turn, all the more incumbent on either McCain or Obama to forge a renewed political consensus behind such a plan.
Given the candidates' current proposals on immigration, only Sen. Barack Obama would be able to utilize the economic and policy landscape to build new coalitions in Congress and improve the White House Executive management of immigration policies. Sen.McCain has proven that he is unwilling to act in ways contrary to his party, which remains vocally anti-immigrant. So what could a new president do? - He should be proactive, not reactive on this issue:
1) The slowing economy helps prove that the it's not "enforcement only" that has led to a decrease in illegal immigration, "it's the economy stupid!", thus relieving some pressure from this explosive issue, which allows CIR proponents to argue that now is the time to act to take control of the system - before the situation becomes more critical.
2) Develop an economic narrative, and revive the strong coalition of business, community, religious, and academic groups to advocate in Congress. As noted in the piece, businesses have suffered under the "enforcement only" strategy:
As small-business credit seizes up and unemployment increases, going after businesses providing jobs....is not playing well among most constituencies, apart from hard-line immigration opponents. Indeed, lobbyists and managers in other potentially vulnerable companies - such as high-tech concerns and seasonal industries - are already contending that they need access to specialized non-U.S. workers now more than ever.
I would add that under the current administration it's the unscrupulous employers who have been provided "amnesty". Passage of CIR under a new administration would call for interior enforcement as well as border enforcement, while at the same time providing adequate protection to workers and families. Not just immigrant workers would benefit from wage and labor safeguards under CIR - all businesses and workers would benefit.
Others argue that the undocumented drive wages down - the next president should make those individuals understand that by bringing the undocumented out of the shadows we will push wages up, and by making sure they become full-fledged members of our society and economy at a time of economic downturn, we will add revenue to our tax base and to our communities. As illegal aliens become documented, they will earn more and spend more.
We found an interesting piece of information during NDN's latest poll on immigration: There is a positive view of immigrants among the general population, which is conducive to passing immigration reform - 68-69 percent of voters in four battleground states believe that illegal immigrants come to this country to "get a job and a better life", as opposed to the 10-12 percent who believe they come to "take advantage" of our public programs, and 60 percent believe that immigrants take "jobs no one else wants" as opposed to "taking American jobs." And yet, when they are asked whether undocumented immigrants help or hurt the economy, 40-47 percent believe they "hurt the economy by driving wages down." In Nevada, where immigrants comprise a significant percentage of major sectors like construction and services, 47 percent of those polled believe they hurt the economy, while 39 believe they help.
However, Hispanics "get" the economic argument. Among Hispanic voters polled in Nevada for example, 64 percent believe illegal immigrants help the economy, while only 22 percent think that they push wages down.
During such a dramatic economic downturn, CIR will help improve the rights and wages of all workers. Legalization of the undocumented will push wages up and to add to our tax base and it will help businesses by providing a more secure labor force and larger consumer base, which provides common ground with which to join different Congressional and other factions on the side of CIR.
3) Look to the future. Immigration reform would require funding; the next President will have to make Congress and the American people understand that this is an investment in the country's future. While the decrease in illegal immigration might make reform seem less urgent, there is an urgency to reform our broken immigration system, including the visa and temporary worker systems, and deal with future flow. The next president needs to make this clear at a time of economic crisis:
"People see those visas, incorrectly, as enabling immigrant workers to compete with American workers. We'd like to see an administration move forward. Congress is always reactive, instead of looking down the pike, and looking at the demographics of our country. When the economy comes back, we're going to need these workers even more."
4) Modify and deal with backlogs and enforcement measures through executive branch appointmentsand administrative rulings. The next president will havethis ability, which is another reason why there is so much at stake for immigration reform in this election.
5) Work with other countries. As stated in the Democratic Party Platform on immigration, it will be necessary for the next president to work with immigrant-sending nations in order to address the conditions that cause immigration in the first place.
In conclusion, immigration Reform can be repackaged as an item in a broader economic agenda that helps relieve some of the downward pressure on U.S. wages and benefits. Today, undocumenteds account for 5% of the total workforce in the United States. Bringing them all the minimum wage, the ability to join a labor union and other protections guaranteed to all American workers will help remove some of the downward pressure on the low end of the income scale, making CIR a strong companion to the Democratic Caucus's successful effort to raise the minimum wage early in the 110th Congress.
On Monday, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and Office of the Inspector General released this report (pdf) on "An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General." The report, though unsurprising in its conlusion that Monica Goodling, Kyle Sampson and others violated federal law, did include some surprising information about the politicization of our immigration system under the Bush Administration:
"The evidence detailed above demonstrates that Kyle Sampson, Jan Williams, and Monica Goodling each violated Department of Justice policy and federal law by considering political or ideological affiliations in soliciting and evaluating candidates for [immigration judge], which are Schedule A career positions, not political appointments. Further, the evidence demonstrates that their violations were not isolated instances but were systematic in nature...Scott Jennings, who worked at the White House Office of Political Affairs, confirmed that [immigration judge] appointments were "treated like other political appointments," that the White House's sources for candidates were all Republican, and that candidates were screened for their "political qualifications."
"One of the results of this tightly controlled selection process among Sampson, Williams, and Goodling was that it left numerous [immigration judge] vacancies unfilled for long periods of time when they could not find enough candidates, even when EOIR pleaded for more judges and told the OAG repeatedly that EOIR's mission was being compromised by the shortage of [immigration judges]. We found that all of the people who applied in response to vacancy announcements for [immigraiton judges] were ignored, even when the OAG could not identify political candidates to fill the open [immigration judge] positions."
That's right folks, Sampson, Williams and Goodling left immigration judge positions vacant for extended periods of time simply because they couldn't find candidates who were Republican enough in their leanings to satisfy the litmus test.
And the analysis of how it effected the system? In an email to Kyle Sampson dated May 23, 2005 Kevin Ohlson (deputy director of EOIR) states the problem quite clearly:
"[T]he number of IJ vacancies continues to grow. The fact that so many slots have remained vacant for so long is beginning to have a measurable impact on the Immigration Courts because the pending case backlog is beginning to grow. This unwelcome development is of considerable concern to the Director because of the potential implications for the Department. We would like to be able to fill these IJ slots as quickly as possible."
Over the last few months, I've been making the case that McCain is one of the worst candidates we've seen run for President in modern times. On the two most important issues in the campaign - the economy and the war - he provides unambiguous support to the wildly unpopular and failed positions of President Bush. He trails Obama by mid single digits in most national polls, is only running in the high 30s or low 40s, is 15 points or so behind where Bush ended up with Hispanics, is not ahead in any of the 17 states that make up the Democratic base of 248 electoral college votes, and is not definitively ahead in the Southerwestern states around Arizona that supposedly know him best (in fact Obama has solid leads in CO and NM). He is an erratic and often boring beyond imagination public personality, and has been making regular and routine mistakes on the stump that I believe should be getting more attention than they have to date, as they raise questions about his basic command of facts, his own voting record and the world around him. His repeated flip-flops on major issues makes it clear he is much more ambitious pol than virtuous reformer.
Yes, Simon, we know you think this is a bad campaign and McCain a bad candidate. But why then is Obama only ahead of him by 4-6 points? Remember, my friends, that Democrats have only broken 50.1% in the national popular vote once in the last 60 years of politics, and a 4-6 point win in Presidential politics is a landslide. McCain has been on the national stage for many years, is a true war hero and his party still controls the White House. Obama only burst on the stage four years ago, has that unusual name, got quite beat up during a very tough primary, and of course is the first bi-racial candidate in our history. That Obama is ahead at all at this point to me is surprising.
Dan Balz captured some of this emerging convention wisdom yesterday in this post on McCain's Colombia trip.
By November (probably even by August), McCain's trip to Latin America will have been long forgotten, but it is a symbol now of a campaign that has yet to find its cruising speed. The time spent in Colombia and Mexico matters less than the message it sends -- or perhaps more correctly, the absence of a message that it sends. What is McCain trying to tell voters by this visit?
McCain could not have made this trip because he needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials. That may be part of the motivation for Obama's upcoming trip to the Middle East and Europe: Obama wants to demonstrate that he is not intimidated by going head-to-head with McCain on international issues. He will use the overseas trip as well to bask in some of the glow that his candidacy has created abroad.
Obama's trip makes political sense. McCain's doesn't. McCain's strongest suit already is national security. Virtually every poll shows that Americans regard him as fully experienced on those issues. Voters may disagree with McCain's policies, which means there is an opening for Obama to challenge the presumptive GOP nominee on foreign policy. But demonstrating familiarity with foreign leaders or regional issues won't do much for McCain at this point. People assume he has that.
Public opinion shows deep skepticism about the value of free trade agreements. Is McCain's purpose in going to Colombia and Mexico designed to show how willing he is to buck public opinion, to demonstrate that he is prepared to take unpopular stands? That seems unlikely. Every politician this year is looking for ways to feel the pain of their constituents. McCain is no exception. He may be for free trade but he isn't looking to flaunt it to struggling workers.
Instead, take the trip as a metaphor for a campaign still not quite through its long shakedown period. McCain has had months to make the transition from nomination battle to general election, but still appears to lack the kind of cohesive operation he will need to win in a very difficult environment for the Republicans.
The McCain campaign can point to national polls that show the race with Obama is still close. Most polls have the margin in single digits. But Republican strategists outside the campaign worry that, unless McCain develops a more coherent strategy and message, he'll have difficulty winning in November. They are not in despair, but the concern is rising. McCain is aware of these concerns, but it's not clear how much he shares them.
It is useful to recall that a year ago, McCain's campaign imploded, with chief strategist John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson handing in their resignations and the top level of the communications shop following them out the door. Almost no one gave McCain any real chance of winning. Seven months later he had clinched that nomination.
His situation now is hardly comparable. But he can't count on the mistakes of his rival to boost him in the general election the same way he was able to do in the primaries. When he returns from Colombia and Mexico and hunkers down for the holiday weekend, he will no longer have to answer questions about where he was. But will he have the answer to the question of where he goes from here.
And of course, yesterday Old Man McCain acknowledged this corrosive weakness himself, when he replaced his 2nd campaign manager of his Presidential campaign with his 3rd. The Post covered it this way:
Facing growing dissatisfaction both inside and outside his campaign, Sen. John McCain ordered a shake-up of his team yesterday, reducing the role of campaign manager Rick Davis and vesting political adviser Steve Schmidt with "full operational control" of his bid for the presidency.
Schmidt becomes the third political operative in the past year to take on the task of attempting to guide McCain to the White House. A veteran of President Bush's political operation, Schmidt will be in charge of finding a more effective message in the Arizona Republican's race against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in most polls.
In a telephone interview, Schmidt said that McCain faces a difficult challenge, given the overall mood of the country, but that he is encouraged by the race remaining relatively tight.
"There are 125 days left until the American people will decide the next president," he said. "Senator McCain is the underdog in the race. We suspect he is behind nationally five to eight points but well within striking distance. I will help run an organization that exists for the purpose of delivering John McCain's message to the American people." Schmidt is also expected to abandon Davis's plan to put roughly a dozen regional campaign managers in place around the country.
The abrupt shift in leadership, announced to McCain's staff yesterday morning, came after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driven largely by fundraising priorities rather than political necessity.
"There's not a cogent message," one Republican strategist said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They've been attacking Obama every day, but it doesn't tie back to an overarching theme that McCain believes in."
The problems crystallized this week, with McCain on a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he is talking about trade and drug trafficking, an exercise even some insiders considered a waste of the candidate's time.
"They've been playing this ripped-from-the-headlines game. Whatever is hot or interesting for the day is what they've been talking about," said one former McCain adviser who is no longer with the campaign.
So far I think the press has not been as nearly as tough on McCain as they could have been. It will be interesting to see if we are headed towards a big political elite downward arrow for McCain and his merry band of men, a downward arrow they certainly deserve.