Both Sides of Immigration Debate Retrench

Editor’s note: This is the introductory article in a three-part series on the post-election debate on immigration reform. For more analysis of how pro- and anti-immigration forces are framing the issue after the election, see Identity Politics and the Latino Payback on Immigration and Anti-Immigration Forces Ready to Challenge Obama.

The two sides of the immigration debate—immigration restrictionists and immigrant advocates—are reframing their messages in the wake of the Democrats’ sweeping electoral victory. Restrictionists argue that legalization cannot take place during an economic crisis when U.S. citizens need jobs. Advocates argue that the new administration owes the Latino community that helped elect him a comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration was a nonissue in the presidential race. Its earlier prominence in the primary campaign faded after it became clear that both candidates and both parties had more to lose than to gain when discussing immigration reform. But now the issue is resurfacing, as pro-immigration and anti-immigration groups position themselves to advance their causes with the new Congress and new administration.

One side demands liberal immigration reform that includes legalization and family reunification visas, while the other side calls for conservative immigration reform that enforces the "rule of law" and dramatically lowers immigration flows.

Restrictionists Reframe Their Message

In the presidential election, the restrictionists felt that they didn’t have a horse in the race. John McCain’s partnership with Senator Edward Kennedy to sponsor the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill in 2006 landed the Arizona senator his "McAmnesty" sobriquet. Even McCain’s subsequent embrace of a "border security first" position didn’t clear his name with the anti-immigration hardliners. Roy Beck, director of NumbersUSA, said that during the campaign he had rated the candidates from "bad" to "abysmal."

Barack Obama ranked closer to the "abysmal" side of the equation. His frequent references to legalization of immigrants rankled restrictionist leaders, for whom the way to "bring people out of the shadows" is to put them on a plane for deportation. The movement also suffered setbacks when the Democratic sweep took with it a number of anti-immigration congressional members, notably Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), and new restrictionist hero Lou Barletta, the immigrant-bashing mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania.

But anti-immigration organizations decided to downplay losses and immediately get to work forging a new strategy.

In the view of NumberUSA’s Beck, "The results of this evening have not been a reason for celebrating. But neither have they been a reason for us to put on sackcloth." Beck noted what he saw as reassuring signs in House elections:

Restrictionists also hailed the defeat of Proposition 202 in Arizona, which would have rolled back the state’s tough anti-illegal immigrant employment law, and the reelection of the anti-immigrant sheriff in Phoenix and the Maricopa County attorney.

Summing up the election results, the Arizona Republic reported: "The re-election of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas keeps the issue of illegal immigration at the forefront of Arizona politics, even though it has fallen off the national radar." Their wins, along with the decisive defeat of Proposition 202, signaled that despite a higher turnout of Latino voters the majority of Arizonans still take a hard line on illegal immigrants.

Raul Yzaguierre, Arizona State University professor and former president of the National Council of La Raza, admitted that the election results showed that Arizona voters remained deeply frustrated over illegal immigration and expressed the concern that anti-immigrant fever may heat up as the economy contracts. "Economic uncertainty also makes people more fearful. People are looking for scapegoats and these folks (illegal immigrants) are easy scapegoats," he said.

While not thrilled with the prospect of an Obama presidency, the restrictionists don’t fear it. Some, including NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), are trying to leverage Obama’s promises to protect workers and create jobs into a new anti-immigration platform.
Rather than pressuring Obama from the right on such issues as immigrant crime and the cost of social services for immigrants, NumbersUSA and FAIR have concluded that there is new opportunity to make the case for restrictionism from the political left by playing on the plight of U.S. workers.

In Beck’s view, "Whatever the Obama campaign may have said about immigration before the stock market crash, his priorities have clearly changed and immigration policy will have to serve as his top priority of getting American workers back into jobs that offer decent wages and benefits, especially health insurance."

Dismissing the current relevance of Obama’s campaign promise to enact comprehensive reform including legalization in his first term, FAIR’s president Dan Stein also zeroed in on Obama’s commitments to create jobs. Instead of focusing on the cultural, national security, environmental, or "rule of law" arguments that FAIR has previously favored, Stein argued that FAIR’s position in favor of restricted immigration was an economic, worker-centered stance.

"To the extent that Senator Obama received a mandate," said Stein, "it is to put government back on the side of working Americans. A critical component of an economic recovery plan for struggling workers must be to set rational limits on immigration, enforce laws against employing illegal aliens, and resist calls for more guest workers."

The day after the election, Beck told NumbersUSA members and activists (800,000 claimed) that "I feel mildly optimistic at this moment about the next presidency." That’s because, said Beck, Obama "must choose between two contradictory campaign promises": 1) his "barely whispered perfunctory campaign pledges to offer U.S. citizenship to an estimated seven million illegal foreign workers, plus their 5-13 million relatives" and 2) his "loudest-shouted priority to put Americans back to work."

NumbersUSA isn’t waiting until Jan. 20 to mobilize. Beck called for a "small army of committed citizens" to force the news media and politicians to adopt the language of the "contradiction" and to pressure Obama to stand down on his promise for liberal immigration reform and stand up to his promise to support workers. A petition to Obama organized by Beck asserts that a "legalization program would permanently remove seven million jobs from being available for American workers."

Another Obama theme picked up by fast-learning restrictionists is the attack on "special interests." According to FAIR, "The results of yesterday’s elections are a clear rejection by the voters of government of, by, and for, special interests, and policies that have brought this nation to the brink of an economic crisis." FAIR asserted that "Americans are fed-up with immigration policies that have placed the interests of immigration lawbreakers, cheap labor employers, and ethnic power brokers ahead of those of struggling workers and taxpayers."

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a restrictionist think tank, added it was time for anti-immigration leaders to tone down grassroots opposition to immigration. Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist think tank Center for Immigration Studies, acknowledged that the anti-immigration forces may have injected too much "bile" into the restrictionist movement. CIS’s president, author of The New Case Against Immigration Both Legal and Illegal, observed in a post-election analysis that "too much of even the legitimate, non-bilious concern of immigration is based on the idea that today’s immigrants are somehow inferior to your grandma from Sicily or your grampa from Lithuania."

"This is why," wrote Krikorian, "I think there’s political utility (as well as substantive truth) to the central point of my book: Today’s immigrants are very similar to those of the past, but we have changed, our society is so profoundly different because of modernization that mass immigration of any kind is no longer appropriate. This removes the onus from the foreigners and also allows us to place illegal immigration into a larger context rather than just gripe about lawbreaking (as bad as that is)."

"Despite big Democratic gains in Congress," noted Krikorian," the results aren’t as bad for the cause of immigration enforcement as a simple partisan view might suggest. After all, one of the ways Democrats have been picking up formerly Republican seats over the past few elections has been to nominate immigration hawks like Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana."

In his post-election analysis in National Review Online, Krikorian sarcastically commented: " Despite Obama’s promise to Hispanic groups to address amnesty during his first 100 days, stepping into a steaming pile of amnesty would drain vital time and energy, a la Clinton and gays in the military, from things he cares about more, like socializing medicine and lowering sea levels."

"Whatever candidate Obama said about amnesty before the stock market meltdown," wrote Krikorian, "a proposal by President Obama to [grant] amnesty to millions of illegals during the worst economic situation in decades would be a gift to the Republican minority in Congress."

Immigration Advocates Say Democrats Owe Latinos

Joining the post-election maneuvering for immigration reform, immigrant rights groups assert that, given the surge of Latino voters for Democrats, the new administration and Congress have no choice but to support a liberal reform that includes legalization.

All but ignoring the jobs issue, the pro-immigration groups, including National Immigration Forum, NDN (successor to New Democratic Movement), America’s Voice, Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), and many grassroots immigrant-rights groups are emphasizing the importance of Latino and immigrant votes to Obama’s success and to the future of the Democratic Party.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that the record number of Latino and immigrant voters" created a clear mandate for immigration reform and economic security for all Americans."

But the organization’s message of congratulations for President-elect Obama also contained a warning. What Latinos and immigrant voters give, they can take away—if immigration reform is not a priority.

"Our new president should not take for granted the support of the immigrant vote," said Noorani, "because it is not an unconditional support. Unless we move beyond the stalemate toward a pragmatic approach to fix our broken immigration system through a workable solution that is tough, fair, and realistic, then the new American vote will swing the other way."

Tacitly acknowledging that immigration was not a top concern of most Latino or other voting constituencies, Noorani and other immigrant advocates argue that immigration reform is a "threshold issue"—a make or break issue—for Latinos and "New Americans."

This group—who along with their children born in the United States since 1965 are considered "New American voters"—also views immigration as a threshold issue," said Noorani.

Also calling immigration a "threshold issue" executive director of America’s Voice, Frank Sharry, said that immigration reform will be key if Democrats expect to hold on to the Latino and New American vote. "Candidates who define themselves as in favor of common sense immigration reform win their races," asserted Sharry, adding that "neither party will want to go into the next presidential race with immigration reform unresolved."

Pointing to the defeat of immigrant-bashing candidates like Dole and Barletta, America’s Voice declared that "new voters are redrawing America’s political map, and policy makers who don’t get it could end up on the wrong side of history."

Paco Fabian of America’s Voice predicted that "after election day, these new voters will get to work pressing for immigration reform. This has made the extremists who’ve dominated immigration politics very nervous about what’s coming: a newly organized powerhouse demanding that Washington deliver real, comprehensive immigration reform."

At a Nov. 11 press conference in Washington, DC, Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a project of the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC, announced plans for a protest rally on the Mall the day after Obama’s inauguration. The coalition of immigrant-rights organizations, unions, and other grassroots organizations are demanding immigration reform, an end to work-site raids, and a suspension of the plans by Homeland Security to have letters sent to employers when Social Security numbers of employees don’t match.

"We voted in the millions, and now we’re going to demand progress in the millions," said Angelica Salas, director of one of the allied organizations, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

The National Council of La Raza was more circumspect about assessing the role of immigration in the Latino vote. "Latino and new citizen voters turned out in record numbers, motivated by a desire to see a stronger economy, better jobs, and access to quality education and health care," NCLR’s president Janet Murguía said. "They were also energized by the urgency of seeing immigration reform enacted and to voice their opposition to demeaning and dehumanizing rhetoric in the immigration debate."

New Political Reality

It’s likely that neither immigration reform nor immigration law enforcement will be a priority of the new administration and Congress.

According to the president-elect’s website,, "The Obama administration has a comprehensive and detailed agenda to carry out its policies. The principal priorities of the Obama administration include: a plan to revive the economy, to fix our healthcare, education, and social security systems, to define a clear path to energy independence, to end the war in Iraq responsibly and finish our mission in Afghanistan, and to work with our allies to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, among many other domestic and foreign policy objectives."

In the post-election and post-financial crash reframing of conservative immigration reform, the restrictionists wildly overreach in implicating immigration in the country’s economic downturn—from the subprime mortgage crisis to massive job losses to the financial shortfalls facing state and local governments. In their view, immigration policies are central to most of the major challenges facing the country. Rather than offering balanced structural analysis, to advance their cause, immigration and immigrants are scapegoated for most everything from urban sprawl to declining low wages to rising crime rates.

Despite this tunnel-vision perspective, they manage to retain their credibility largely because they say that their restrictionist position represents what’s best for all Americans, including Latinos and citizen immigrants. In contrast, the pro-immigration camp regularly frames its demands as being ones that come from Latinos and immigrants. What the public and policymakers see are two sides, one saying they speak for all Americans and the other speaking for immigrants.

By reframing the immigration issue as a threat to ever-scarcer jobs in the context of the national economic crisis, immigration restrictionists will likely retain their dominance in the immigration debate.

By asserting that immigration reform is a threshold issue for Latinos and New Americans, immigration advocates risk alienating themselves from their own base, which is overwhelmingly concerned with the economy. Latinos and immigrants, like African Americans, want to be represented for who they are—workers, parents, retirees, homeowners, community members who share the concerns of their communities. Not single-issue cutouts who care only about one issue, punish and reward politicians based on that issue alone, and consider the issue as a voting bloc concern rather than one of common public concern.

What’s missing on the side of the pro-immigrants’ rights forces is a post-election strategy that goes beyond ethnicity and immigration status to appeal to all Americans.

The immigration restrictionists have once again taken the lead in adapting to a new political context—even one that on the surface is unfavorable to their cause. Rather than lamenting or hammering at the same messages they used during the Bush administration, they already have reframed their messaging to reflect new economic concerns and to parallel the core promises of the Obama campaign and transition team.

To attain the kind of immigration reform they seek, immigrant advocates must begin explaining how liberal immigration reforms, rather than repressive enforcement-only measures, can serve the common good in a changed economic and political context. Advocates must also make the case that if longtime immigrants are legalized, they will increase their contributions to the economy and society, and that all workers and community members deserve to be treated justly and fairly.

There is no sure route to liberal immigration reform. But if pro-immigration groups can make a solid case that 1) the U.S. economy benefits from current and future immigrants, and that 2) the current immigrant crackdown is emblematic of the hate and fear of the Bush administration era not of the values of the new Obama America, then sensible and fair immigration reform might be a political possibility.