EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is covering the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! This is the final day of our campaign! Donate today to make more of this reporting possible.
Immigration came in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. The takeaway line you’ve likely heard was Hillary Clinton offering self-congratulatory remarks to her fellow party members’ handling of the topic:
“I want to follow up because I think underneath [CNN correspondent] Juan Carlos’s important questions, there is such a difference between everything you’re hearing on this stage, and what we hear from the Republicans.”
The crowd cheered. And Clinton was so right. In last night’s light, breeze-through talk on guest-worker programs, in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, and the expansion of Obamacare for undocumented children, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O’Malley, Clinton, and Bernie Sanders refrained from uttering a single xenophobic remark about immigrants. The Donald Trump show this was not.
But Clinton’s statement also highlighted how very low the bar is right now for Democrats, dragged as it’s been into the gutters by Trump. So long as Democrats hold off on openly racist derision of immigrants, they’re already winning. Or are they?
In a way, Trump’s made the immigration conversation easy for Democrats. But candidates have a responsibility to be more than just not-racist; not showing their fear-mongering backsides doesn’t automatically make them good on immigration. The tonal differences matter, but so do the policy conversations.
First, the permeability of the border, a unified rallying point for Republicans, was not mentioned once last night. Rather, Sanders, Clinton, O’Malley, and Webb (Chafee never got in on the topic) all kicked to calls for “comprehensive immigration reform,” which it should be noted, has been trapped in Congress for more than a decade. The unspoken reality is that comprehensive immigration reform bills contain enhanced enforcement and border-security provisions as a political matter of course. Nothing said last night will inconvenience Democratic candidates when they decide to pivot to “secure the border” talk when they’re speaking to a general electorate. Just because Democratic candidates weren’t forced to go there Tuesday, doesn’t mean they won’t.
Second, if anything showed just how far the mainstream debate on immigrant rights has been shoved to the right, it was the fact that Anderson Cooper thought he’d offer Clinton an opportunity to make news by asking about her position on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. “Two of your rivals from your left, Governor O’Malley and Senator Sanders, want to provide in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants,” Cooper said to Clinton. “Where do you stand on that?”
Clinton supports in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants! That’s not even new news, for starters. But in-state tuition bills, which are passed at the state level, are easy no-brainers when it comes to affirming undocumented immigrants’ educational rights. More than a dozen states have passed bills that recognize undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in and graduated from high school in their home state as residents who are eligible for in-state tuition. Without these so-called tuition equity bills, undocumented students are counted as out-of-state residents and are required to pay two and sometimes three times what their peers pay in tuition. As it is, undocumented students are barred from federal aid, grants, and loans, and the tripled tuition costs can make higher education prohibitively expensive.
Immigrant-rights advocates have often had to defend in-state tuition laws from repeal efforts. But in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants was once a politically smart idea for even Republicans. Then–Texas Governor Rick Perry signed his own state’s in-state tuition bill into law in 2001. As a presidential candidate in 2011, Perry even defended the policy with strong words: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than that they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”
Third, there remain unresolved core questions about how the country will handle immigration when it’s time to turn rhetoric into policy. Nowhere was that more clear than in CNN correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez’s opening question in the immigration segment. “In 2013, you voted for immigration reform,” Lopez said to Sanders. “But in 2007, when Democrats controlled Congress and the Bush White House was onboard, you voted against it. Why should Latino voters trust you now, when you left them at the altar at the moment when reform was very close?”
Sanders said that he backed away from the bill because “it had guest-worker provisions in it which the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about being semi-slavery. Guest workers are coming in, they’re working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they’re thrown out of the country.”
Sanders is a long-time ally of the AFL-CIO, which at the time criticized the bill’s onerous and tiered citizenship opportunities as well as its guest-worker provisions—which the AFL-CIO argued could endanger labor unions. Organized labor has indeed struggled to see immigrants as worthy of membership in its base. But the AFL-CIO wasn’t the only group on the left that criticized the hard-fought immigration reform package, which was a compromise between those who wanted solely immigration enforcement provisions and those who wanted humane legalization options for immigrants. Organizations like the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights also opposed the guest-worker provisions which, the group wrote on its blog, would “designat[e] a secondary tier of workers without the same rights as other workers” and “disrespect the principle of family unity and perpetuate the system of disposable immigrant labor.”
Sanders’s initially myopic focus on race-neutral economic inequality has gotten him into trouble on immigration, much as it did on policing. Earlier this summer Sanders said that he is opposed to US companies that advocate for immigration reform because, “they are interested in…seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages in America, and I strongly disagree with that.” Sanders has affirmed his support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (which he repeated last night), but his comments sounded unsettlingly similar to immigration hawks who use the same line to advocate for harsher immigration policy. Lopez’s questioning last night reflected that concern among reform advocates.
The bottom line is that the 2007 congressional debate on immigration reform (not to mention the 2004, and 2005, and 2006, and the 2010, 2013, and 2014 ones as well) was intractably heated and complex. Get enough people across the political spectrum into a room and tally up everyone’s deal breakers and they start to cancel out the whole process. (Congress does always find a way to fund more immigration enforcement though, it should be noted.) Even Marco Rubio still can’t decide whether he supports a pathway to citizenship or one that offers just legal status. The question Sanders answered was only partially about his stance on immigrant rights. It was in fact more pointedly about immigration reform politics.
Hillary Clinton referenced the thorny tangle that is immigration reform best on Tuesday night. Answering a question about healthcare for undocumented immigrants, Clinton said, “It would be very difficult to administer. It needs to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform, when we finally do get to it.”
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Lastly, a few debate notes for the candidates:
Is Martin O’Malley shy about the fact that he’s got the most progressive platform on immigration? He sought, inadequately, to make that distinction on Tuesday. But he’s the only presidential candidate who has spelled out with eye-popping specificity several key changes that would bring enormous relief to immigrant communities. Among his proposals: providing immigrants in deportation proceedings access to attorneys—a right they currently do not have—and ending the federal government’s daily detention quota.
After Jim Webb’s Tuesday performance, it’s unlikely the nation will see much more of him as presidential candidate. Still, I’d like to warn Jim Webb that mentioning his Vietnamese wife, her refugee history, and her efforts to learn English as a way of proving his immigration bona fides doesn’t prove anything to anyone. Jeb Bush does a mildly more acceptable version of the same when it comes to his wife, Columba. You don’t get extra points for marrying an immigrant.
Chafee, I got nothing for you. No, never mind, I do. Your immigration-reform platform is a copy and paste job of the McCain-Kennedy immigration-reform bill you supported—in 2005. Do you even want to be president?