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The Immigration Non-Debate

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
August 15, 2008

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For all the hot rhetoric it prompted during the presidential primaries, the immigration debate has gone dormant since Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) began the general election campaign. In large part, analysts say, this is because the candidates are fairly aligned on the matter. "Both men have lots of good will among pro-immigration activists, but not much from hard-liners," summarizes an article from McClatchy. The result is that the candidates, while occasionally sparring (WSJ), have increasingly kept mum on the issue, according to an AP analysis. While both McCain and Obama are keen on courting Latino swing voters (NPR), neither wants to alienate elements in their parties that favor tougher immigration measures.

But despite a low campaign profile, some experts expect both Obama and McCain to make immigration policy reform a priority (AZ Republic) if elected. Few question the pressing need for reform. Economists and business leaders alike decry standards they say make U.S. businesses less competitive internationally (YaleGlobal) by preventing them from hiring skilled foreign laborers. They say policy should better distinguish between unskilled workers and those that add significant value to the U.S. economy—particularly in sectors dependent on a highly specialized workforce, such as information technology and petrochemical engineering.

Meanwhile, homeland security watchdogs criticize immigration policy, which has led to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, for making the United States more susceptible to terrorism. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says in a CFR.org Online Debate that "the home front is the real front, and denying the enemy access must be one of our key defensive goals." (This point of view is disputed, however—the Heritage Foundation's James Jay Carafano argues in the same debate that immigration does not pose a national security threat.)

Both Obama and McCain have presented strategies for addressing these concerns. McCain cosponsored a 2006 immigration reform bill that drew sharp opposition from elements within his own party. He was the only Republican presidential candidate to support the bill, which among other reforms proposed a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States. Obama also supported the bill. McCain has since said he would not push the same legislation again, and has said that his first goal on immigration as president would be to secure U.S. borders against illegal immigration. Still, in debates during the primaries, McCain reiterated that he would also push for a more comprehensive, bipartisan policy solution, including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Obama, for his part, has supported an amendment to the immigration reform bill mandating that jobs be offered to U.S. workers at a "prevailing wage" before they are given to guest workers. He has also supported funding to improve the efficiency of immigrant screening procedures, and voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act of 2006. At the same time, Obama's Illinois constituents include many Mexican immigrants, and he is considered a progressive voice on immigration policy. He has supported granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, calling it a "public safety concern," and supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

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