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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What happened to the immigration wedge?

By Jim Kessler
On Election Day, the great immigration wedge fizzled. This was supposed to be the “gay marriage” of 2006. It was supposed to follow guns and abortion as issues where Democrats would fall into their single issue trap and repel white voters. But Democrats survived and repelled the immigration wedge because they understood and spoke to the internal complexities that typical voters felt about the issue and Republicans did not. And mostly they won because they didn’t act like typical Democrats.
With all due respect to Lou Dobbs and to Republican anti-immigrant leaders Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and J.D. Hayworth (R-K-Street), most people aren’t outraged about illegal immigrants. They are conflicted about them and about the issue.
They believe that illegal immigrants are mostly good, hard-working people seeking to build a better life. They also believe they are law-breakers. They believe that if they play by the rules, assimilate, and work hard that they should have a right to become citizens. They also believe that sending them back to their home countries would be a good goal for America.
In the past, Democrats had seized upon immigration to solidify their support among a growing Hispanic population. They had used the debate to define Republicans as intolerant, mean-spirited, even bigoted. They had characterized illegal immigrants as pure innocents and victims of discrimination and abuse. But this was a trap. From Third Way’s extensive polling on this issue, people’s compassion for illegal immigrants stopped where their taxpayer interests began.
At our urging, Democrats played a different tune this year on immigration. They supported the same policies that they had in the past but defined their goals in ways to appeal to non-Hispanic voters. They called for toughness on the border, fairness to taxpayers, and practicality in terms of dealing with the existing problem and restoring the rule of law. They excoriated President Bush for failing to enforce existing laws. And they defined the path to citizenship, not as the compassionate solution for illegal immigrants, but as the best solution for taxpayers.
It worked. Because Democrats supported immigration reform, their margin among Hispanics jumped from eleven to thirty-nine points. In part because they messaged reform to appeal to taxpayers, their deficit among whites dwindled from fifteen to four points. In nearly all races where immigration became a major issue, Democrats thumped Republicans. In Arizona, ground-zero in the immigration debate, two house seats flipped from R to D. Some of the most virulent foes of immigration reform were sent packing. And Democrats who began the year on the defensive cruised to victory.
Now what? We have already heard from some Democrats a reluctance to take up the issue at all. They see it as overly controversial, and they don’t want to tempt fate with another foray into this issue. But they don’t have a choice. We have an immigration crisis in this country and if nothing is done Democrats will be blamed.
At Third Way, we are confident that Democrats can pass immigration reform without alienating non-Hispanic voters. If Democrats cling to the substance in the Senate-passed McCain-Kennedy bill and stick to the message of tough, fair to taxpayers, and practical, they will not only repel the immigration wedge — they will receive credit for solving one of America’s most vexing problems.

Jim Kessler is Vice President for Policy at Third Way

3 comments on “What happened to the immigration wedge?

  1. Mike Mavroidis on

    Tax Illegal Employers: A plan tp recover the cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers.
    The Federal government should place a tax surcharge of $1.00 per hour or 10% of wages paid on employers of illegal immigration. The net funds collected should be divided into three equal portions which go to federal, state, and local governments, because each level of government spends money providing services to illegals and their families. As is the case with other unpaid taxes, those who report tax evasion to authorities should get a percentage of any taxes and penalties collected by the IRS. This plan aligns the interests of all three levels of government and individual taxpayers into seeing that the law is enforced and taxes due are collected. Since it’s an unpaid tax and not a crime, the government can collect without proving that the employer knew the employees immigration violation status beyond a reasonable doubt, making it much easier to enforce.
    Illegal employers who claim they can’t find legal workers will be required to put their money where their mouths are by paying a surcharge on illegal labor.
    Finally, if IRS officials are too beholden to corporate officials to collect the tax, we should allow individuals to bring suit under the federal tort claims act, allowing them to keep an even larger portion of taxes collected than they would receive for just reporting the violation to the IRS. This gives individuals who want tougher enforcement a path of action which is much more constructive than sitting at the border with guns. Also illegals would have an incentive to register as guest workers or take whatever path the law sets up to become legal and therefore financially more appealing to employers. Finally, if this isn’t enough to get American employers to give hiring preference to American workers, we could always increase the amount of the surcharge.

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  2. Larry Davis on

    It amazes me that anyone thinks they can read the voters mindset on any specific issue based on the election results. I disagree vehemently with the Democrats position on illegal immigration, yet I always vote a straight Democratic ticket. Illegal immigration is a vexing problem all right, but it was dwarfed by dozens of other issues. I just don’t see how anyone can draw conclusions about a subject like this based on the election results. The writer is only deluding himself.

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  3. Alan Harvey on

    “Doing something about” the immigration issue usually means stopping and/or punishing immigrants. This is a trade issue, the other side of the NAFTA coin. American industrial farm products have decimated the Mexican agrarian economy, leaving people the choice of privation or emigrating to the US.
    Whether or not this is the perception of the American public, it is the fact.
    NAFTA is more widely excoriated in Mexico than in the US. To the extent the populist anti-corporate Democrats can, they ought to make this point. It isn’t working for anybody — except the corporate interests who can monopolize the gains.
    One suspects, as you suggest, that the immigration issue was generated as a wedge for the election and will be relegated to the far back burner now that the vote is in.
    Opposition to NAFTA must take one of two forms: repeal the agreements or intervene in the exchange. Intervening means creating new mechanisms to mitigate the environmental and labor problems and to make sure the net gain is a net gain for all players, not just for the corporations. This is a necessarily bureaucratic solution, but it is the only way to make it work in the context of corporate dominance.
    It may well be that agriculture has to be dealt with under non-free trade terms. The subsidies to American agriculture cannot be matched in poorer countries. When a society loses agriculture, it loses not just another industry, but a way of life, a big panel in the fabric of its society.

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