The Democrats are uniting behind new messaging on immigration reform.

Having acknowledged that the immigration restrictionists are dominating the immigration debate, the Democratic Party and its allies are desperately seeking to reframe the immigration crisis. Their new language about immigration policy—"nation of laws," "rule of law," and "required legal status"—is popping up everywhere, from the pronouncements of immigrant-rights groups to the Democratic Party platform.

With new language, they hope to win popular, bipartisan support for immigration reform in their own terms. It’s a message that is shaped by in-house polls and political calculation.

What Democrats Now Say

The party doesn’t back away from comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization for illegal immigrants. As if by rote, it includes the standard language about America being "a nation of immigrants." But the party also strikes a harsher stance than in the past. Trying to please all tendencies, the Democrats say that immigration reform should be "tough, practical, and humane."

Instead of offering an "earned path to citizenship," as it has in the past, the party is now proclaiming that illegal immigrants will be required to obey the law—with the emphasis on the verb "require."

"For the millions living here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules, we must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law," states the party’s platform. "We support a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens."

The "get right with the law" framing is also evident in the recent shift of Democratic Party leaders and pro-immigration toward a dual vision of immigration reform. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other leading Democrats now echo the party line that America can be "both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws."

Several of the planks will surely please the pro-immigration forces, including:

"We must work together to pass immigration reform in a way that unites this country, not in a way that divides us by playing on our worst instincts and fears."

"We need to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, especially those who pay their workers less than the minimum wage."

"We also need to do more to promote economic development in migrant-sending nations, to reduce incentives to come to the United States illegally."

But there is also new enforcement language not seen in previous platforms. The platform states, "We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry."

Similarly, "We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence."

And in a sign that universal employee verification is only a matter of time, the platform committee acknowledges that if employers are to be sanctioned for their hiring practices, then "employers need a method to verify whether their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States, and will ensure that our system is accurate, fair to legal workers, safeguards people’s privacy, and cannot be used to discriminate against workers."

The Democratic Party is determined to gain the full support of the Latino community. It is sponsoring or supporting massive voter registration and voter education campaigns among Latinos and especially the immigrant community. It is, therefore, unwilling to touch the politically sensitive issue of further limiting family reunification visas.

As the platform committee states: "We should fix the dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy that hampers family reunification, the cornerstone of our immigration policy for years. Given the importance of both keeping families together and supporting American businesses, we will increase the number of immigration visas for family members of people living here …"

It’s a platform that is strikingly different than the 2000 and 2004 immigration platforms in its new "rule of law" posture, although it retains some of the immigrant-centered positions.

In 2004, in a nod to the then-reigning security framework of the war on terrorism, the party promised as it worked to ensure that undocumented immigrants "have a path to earn full participation in America … we will work with our neighbors to strengthen our security so we are safer from those who would come here to harm us."

In 2000, the party said, "Family reunification should continue to be the cornerstone of our legal immigration system." And "we support restoration of basic due process protections, so that immigrants are no longer subject to deportation for minor offenses and are eligible to receive safety net services supported by their tax dollars."

New Required Language

Central to the new Democratic framing is the concept of requiring immigrants to "get right with the law" rather than offering them a "pathway to citizenship."

Where did this new language come from?

Apparently from two progressive Beltway institutes close to the Democratic Party: Center for American Progress and America’s Voice. These two organizations floated the "required" language in a few polls to determine how the party and immigration advocates should parse the immigration issue.

What’s the number one goal of Americans with respect to the issue of illegal immigration? In their report "Winning the Immigration Issue: Requiring Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants," the pollsters state: "Hispanic and non-Hispanic voters agree that the most important goal in dealing with illegal immigration is to require illegal immigrants to become legal."

In addition to the "required" wording, the two other key elements of the Democratic Party messaging, according to the polling results, are:

  • "The ‘required legal status’ proposal finds strong support provided there are conditions: paying taxes, learning English, passing a criminal background check, and going to the back of the citizenship line."
  • "Focus on the role of employers. Democrats should favor strong enforcement not only at the border, but also in the workplace. The public believes the main cause of illegal immigration is that employers hire undocumented workers."

"The focus on requiring immigrants to become legal or face deportation if they fail to register gives Democrats a tough, seamless message about getting the immigration system under control and having respect for the rule of law," said the pollsters.

Headed by Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the pollsters observed: "Historically, the Democratic immigration message focused on providing an ‘earned path to citizenship,’ but this approach has no more appeal than a deportation agenda. However, the idea of requiring illegal immigrants to become legal generates a sharply different response. Nearly nine in ten voters favor a proposal to ‘require illegal immigrants to become legal, obey U.S. laws, pay taxes, or face deportation …’"

The polling report recommends the following as a concise summary of the party’s position—a position largely reflected in the party’s platform:

"We must be tough and smart to get our immigration system under control. It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country living outside the legal system. We must secure the border but we must also require illegal immigrants to register and become legal, pay their taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be sent home."

Getting the Language Right

In a recent memo to Democratic congressional staffers, Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress stated: "As you know, getting the language right on the issue of immigration is important in both helping Democratic members against attacks and laying the groundwork for future reform."

Pointing to the polling report, Stachelberg said, "It appears that the new message frame may allow some Democratic incumbents and challengers to go on the offensive with immigration, proves to be resilient to Republican attacks, and breaches the differences between the overall electorate and Hispanic voters on this issue." The memo is titled, "Groundbreaking Messaging on Immigration."

Increasingly, immigration advocates and Democratic Party officials are uniting around this poll-approved language. The phrasing appears, for example, in joint letters from an array on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the platform committees of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The letters, which were dated the same day (July 24) as the CAP polling report, call for an immigration solution "that requires these workers to come forward and get on a path to legal status" and "restores the rule of law."

The joint letters, which go far beyond the more tepid and compromised language of the Democratic Party’s draft immigration platform, were signed by a collection of unions, ethnic organizations, policy institutes, and immigration law organizations, including UniteHere, Service Employees International Union, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, National Council of La Raza, and American Immigration Law Association.

Unlike the party platform, the letters unequivocally condemn the Bush administration’s crackdown on immigrants. "We also urge the committee to reject the Bush administration’s current enforcement strategy, which targets immigrant workers in SWAT team-style raids of workplaces and homes," say the pro-immigration groups, noting that the administration’s "enforcement tactics undermine workers’ rights, create a state of siege in our communities, and have no measurable impact on reducing illegal immigration."

Democrats Tout Enforcement Credentials

The Democrats’ turn toward messaging about immigration that includes a new emphasis on law enforcement is not just a matter of wording. Over the past several years, Democrats have been enthusiastic partners in supporting the Department of Homeland Security in its immigrant crackdown.

In Congress, they have called for multibillion dollar increases to the president’s own proposed budget for border security and immigration enforcement. And they are boasting about their enforcement credentials.

When distributing its polling report to Congress, the Center for American Progress also included a talking points memo entitled, "Immigration Enforcement: Democratic Accomplishments."

According to the memo, Democrats have:

  • "Funded an extra 3,000 Border Patrol agents (nearly 18,000 total), as well as an additional 200 Customs and Border Protection agents, 4,500 detention beds, and border surveillance equipment."
  • "Supported state and local law enforcement through homeland security grant programs, assistance to agencies along the border …"
  • "Directed $35 billion to the Department of Homeland Security for FY 2008—$3 billion more than the Republicans in FY 2007—with $2.7 billion in emergency spending for border security."
  • "Mandated the completion of an additional 370 miles of border fencing by the end of 2008."

The memo notes: "Republicans in Washington have failed to control our borders. Since taking charge of Congress in 2007, congressional Democrats have restored our nation’s commitment to the border and first responders, providing the resources we need to protect our country."

Risks of Moving to the Right

Since Sept. 11, 2001 restrictionist organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies have been framing the immigration crisis as a "rule of law" issue. The new Democratic language of "required legal status" and "nation of laws" is a clear attempt to leverage the restrictionists’ own "rule of law" framing to boost comprehensive immigration reform.

But there are risks to moving toward a law-and-order framing of immigration reform. Over the past few years, Democrats have signed on to the "enforcement-first" policy agenda of the Republicans in the belief that this would bolster the chances of achieving comprehensive reform.

What has occurred, however, is that the "enforcement-first" approach to immigration reform has become the "enforcement-only" immigration policy that immigration restrictionists have long advocated. Acceding to a law-and-order and security framing of the immigration crisis, the Democrats have given the ongoing crackdown greater legitimacy. Rather than improving the chances for comprehensive reform that includes legalization, it’s likely that the Democrats have by their actions in Congress and their new rhetoric on the campaign trail reinforced a "rule of law" messaging that will make legalization still more difficult to achieve.

The "come out of the shadows and get right with the law" language of the Democratic Party furthers the restrictionist stereotyping of illegal immigrants as criminals and threats to society. Rather than new messaging, the party appears to be ceding to right-wing concepts of criminalization of immigrants and place the onus of the immigration mess on immigrants rather than on the system itself.

As one astute observer of immigration affairs noted in the Migra Matters blog: "The language shift from one of providing undocumented migrants the ‘opportunity’ to become full members of society, (as has always been the verbiage) … to ‘require(ing) them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law’… this is no small difference. While meaning essentially the same thing as a matter of policy, to require one to get ‘right with the law’ implies an inherent criminality … and illegality … again fueling the same dehumanizing frames that have led to increased violence and hatred directed at immigrant populations."

Getting the Story Straight

The 2008 Democratic Party platform observes that our "our current immigration system has been broken for far too long," that "we need comprehensive immigration reform, not just piecemeal efforts," and that "we must work together to pass immigration reform in a way that unites this country, not in a way that divides us by playing on our worst instincts and fears."

But the party’s platform fails to address the main reason why most people believe that it is broken—namely that Democratic and Republican Party leaders have presided over an immigration system that has had no effective way to assess and regulate sustainable immigration flows.

Without an immigration policy that both clearly sets forth the benefits of immigration and defines sustainable numbers of new immigrants, citizens can rightly observe that the system is out of control—making them susceptible to restrictionist messaging about "mass immigration."

This lack of a citizen-centered immigration policy has created the breeding ground for the current citizen backlash, right-wing populism, and resulting crackdown—creating the conditions for right-wing restrictionists to frame the immigration crisis in a way that "divides us by playing on our worst instincts and fears."

Framing that identifies and interprets the core reasons for the crisis while pointing to its solution is badly needed. But the new Democratic Party framing is contorted and compromised. It’s a mixed messaged that concedes much ground to the law-and-order restrictionists while at the same time it seeks to build support among the expanding immigrant community. Clearly, Democrats need to readjust their longstanding position on this hot-button issue. And the effort to reframe the issue in a way that supports legalization should be commended. But the result thus far of this reframing exercise is hardly "groundbreaking." It appears to be a product driven by polls and finessed by word-smithing rather than by common sense, political vision, or a real understanding of citizen anxiety.

At its heart, the problem isn’t so much that the framing isn’t right as it is that the Democrats don’t have their story down. If America is to be both a "nation of immigrants" and a "nation of laws," the challenge is to create a narrative that tells how immigration—and how much immigration—is good for the country. It needs to be a story that responds to citizen concerns, anxieties, and sense of fair play. If the Democrats can get that down, it’s likely that the framing that flows from that story would help shift the terms of the debate back from the right and toward the center.

As is, though, the promised comprehensive immigration reform in the first year or the first term of an Obama administration seems doubtful. More likely the Democrats will continue fiddling with their language and principles while the forces of immigration restrictionism keep winning the battles on messaging and policy.