Americans are so accustomed to conservatives imploding over the immigration issue that it’s a refreshing change to see liberals struggle with it as well.
Of course, the left has never been one big happy family on this issue. There has always been a split between blue-collar workers who oppose legalizing the undocumented and Latinos who support it.
Organized labor fought the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that legalized more than 3 million undocumented people, most of them Latino, because union leaders were afraid that the newly legalized would compete for the jobs of working-class Americans. During the George W. Bush administration, while Latino immigrant groups were marching in the streets in support of immigration reform, unions – more covertly, this time – helped derail efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise.
Still, this schism rarely gets noted by a news media more interested in covering the split between pro-business conservatives who want more immigration and nativist conservatives who want less.
The latest immigration divide on the left is not so easy to ignore. It’s about including U.S. citizenship as part of any plan that legalizes the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
This is usually where reform efforts begin, and where they end. Most Republicans – having behaved egregiously over the years toward immigrants and Latinos, or made excuses for those in their party who have – will never support a bill that gives citizenship because that comes with the ability to vote.
This suits Democrats just fine, because they have a secret that never gets talked about: They know that if immigration reform were to pass, they wouldn’t just get most of the credit from Latinos, but also most of the blame from everyone else. They don’t want to face those people, any more than Republicans want to increase the number of Latino voters. So Democrats do the only thing they can. They bluff, and they bet the farm that a Republican elected official will say or do something dumb on immigration. It’s a bet that usually pays off.
Now the Democrats are betting on citizenship, with many of them calling it essential and saying they won’t support any legislative proposal that leaves it out of the mix.
Who are they kidding? See above. Democrats don’t want to give immigrants citizenship either, because they know those votes would come at a high cost. Imagine the harm that would come from being labeled the “amnesty party” for the elections in 2014, 2016, 2018 . . .
It’s all part of the elaborate dance that the two parties perform on the immigration debate. Democrats call for giving the undocumented citizenship, and Republicans push back. So nothing ever gets done, which is the preferred outcome for the parties anyway. After all, the status quo may be flawed but it’s not likely to result in anyone losing their seats. Reforming the immigration system just might.
I’ve long supported giving the undocumented an earned path to legal status, but the immigrants whose lives would be transformed for the better have to be invested in the process. While those who climb their way to legal status should not be barred from seeking citizenship, they should have to travel the rest of that distance on their own once they are ready and interested – and understand the value of being a citizen. It shouldn’t be part of the legislation just because it suits politicians.
Yet, what about the foot soldiers in the immigration reform movement? Do most U.S.-born Latinos who support immigration reform think that citizenship should be a deal-breaker?
The answer is an emphatic no, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. While most Latinos still support a path to citizenship, many are more concerned with giving the undocumented legal status so they are not deported. Fifty-five percent of Latinos think that it is more important for immigrants to be able to live and work legally in the United States than it is for them to become citizens.
That’s a game changer. This survey makes clear what many of us have been saying for some time: while politicians care a lot about citizenship, not many other people do. So the elected officials need to ease up on the citizenship demand and put someone else’s interests ahead of their own.
That would be another refreshing change.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.