October 2007 may turn out to be the month that immigration became a key issue in presidential politics. It hasn’t been, at least in my lifetime.
The Immigration Act of 1965, which turned out to open up America to mass immigration after four decades of restrictive laws, wasn’t one of the Great Society issues Lyndon Johnson emphasized in 1964. The Immigration Act of 1986, which legalized millions of illegal immigrants but whose border and workplace provisions have never been effectively enforced, was a bipartisan measure unmentioned in the debates between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
There was no perceptible difference on immigration between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. Both favored a comprehensive bill with legalization and guest-worker provisions. John Kerry in 2006 and 2007 voted for immigration bills along the lines supported by Bush.
Now, things look different. In the Democratic debate on Oct. 30, Tim Russert demanded to know whether Hillary Clinton supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s policy of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The forthright answer: yes and no. A clarifying statement by the Clinton campaign later in the week did not much clarify things: a hedged yes. It was one of several issues on which Clinton seemed to take calculating and ambiguous non-positions. But it is one that may have major reverberations in the presidential campaign — and in congressional races, as well.
The reason is that the Democrats — and Bush — are out of line with public opinion on the issue. That became clear as the Senate debated a comprehensive immigration bill in May and June. Most Republicans and many Democrats, in the Senate and among the public, turned against the bill. Supporters of the bill tended to ascribe that to something like racism: They just don’t like having so many Mexicans around.
But if you listened to the opponents, you heard something else. They want the current law to be enforced. It bothers them that we have something like 12 million illegal immigrants in our country. It bothers them that most of the southern border is unfenced and unpatrolled. It bothers them that illegal immigrants routinely use forged documents to get jobs — or are given jobs with no documents at all.