New Required Language in Immigration Debate

September 4, 2008
Tom Barry

Central to the new Democratic Party framing evident in their platform is the concept of requiring immigrants to “get right with the law” rather than offering them a “pathway to citizenship.”


Instead of offering an “earned path to citizenship,” as it has in the past, the party is now proclaiming that illegal immigrants will be required to obey the law-- with the emphasis on the verb “require.”


“For the millions living here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules, we must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” states the party’s platform. “We support a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens.”


Where did this new language come from?


Apparently from two progressive Beltway institutes close to the Democratic Party: Center for American Progress and America’s Voice. These two organizations floated the “required” language in a few polls to determine how the party and immigration advocates should parse the immigration issue.


What’s the number-one goal of Americans with respect to the issue of illegal immigration? In their report “Winning the Immigration Issue: Requiring Legal Status for Illegal Immigrants,” the pollsters state: "”Hispanic and non-Hispanic voters agree that the most important goal in dealing with illegal immigration is to require illegal immigrants to become legal.”


In addition to the “required” wording, the two other key elements of the Democratic Party messaging, according to the polling results, are:


  • “The ‘required legal status’ proposal finds strong support provided there are conditions: paying taxes, learning English, passing a criminal background check, and going to the back of the citizenship line.”
  • “Focus on the role of employers. Democrats should favor strong enforcement not only at the border, but also in the workplace. The public believes the main cause of illegal immigration is that employers hire undocumented workers.”


“The focus on requiring immigrants to become legal or face deportation if they fail to register gives Democrats a tough, seamless message about getting the immigration system under control and having respect for the rule of law,” said the pollsters.


Headed by Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the pollsters observed: “Historically, the Democratic immigration message focused on providing an ‘earned path to citizenship,’ but this approach has no more appeal than a deportation agenda. However, the idea of requiring illegal immigrants to become legal generates a sharply different response. Nearly nine in ten voters favor a proposal to ‘require illegal immigrants to become legal, obey U.S. laws, pay taxes, or face deportation….’”


The polling report recommends the following as a concise summary of the party’s position – a position largely reflected in the party’s platform:


We must be tough and smart to get our immigration system under control. It is unacceptable to have twelve million people in our country living outside the legal system. We must secure the border but we must also require illegal immigrants to register and become legal, pay their taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be sent home.”


Getting the Language Right


In a recent memo to Democratic congressional staffers, Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress stated: “As you know, getting the language right on the issue of immigration is important in both helping Democratic members against attacks and laying the groundwork for future reform.”


Pointing to the polling report, Stachelberg said, “It appears that the new message frame may allow some Democratic incumbents and challengers to go on the offensive with immigration, proves to be resilient to Republican attacks, and breaches the differences between the overall electorate and Hispanic voters on this issue.” The memo is titled, “Groundbreaking Messaging on Immigration.”


Increasingly, immigration advocates and Democratic Party officials are uniting around this poll-approved language. The phrasing appears, for example, in joint letters from an array on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the platform committees of Democratic Party and Republican Party.


The letters, which were dated the same day (July 24) as the CAP polling report, call for an immigration solution “that requires these workers to come forward and get on a path to legal status” and “restores the rule of law.”


The joint letters, which go far beyond the more tepid and compromised language of the Democratic Party’s draft immigration platform, were signed by a collection of unions, ethic organizations, policy institutes, and immigration law organizations, including UniteHere, Service Employees International Union, America’s Voice, Center for American Progress, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, National Council of La Raza, and American Immigration Law Association.


Unlike the party platform, the letters unequivocally condemn the Bush administration’s crackdown on immigrants. “We also urge the committee to reject the Bush Administration’s current enforcement strategy, which targets immigrant workers in SWAT team-style raids of workplaces and homes,” say the pro-immigration groups, noting that the administration’s “enforcement tactics undermine workers’ rights, create a state of siege in our communities, and have no measurable impact on reducing illegal immigration.”


Democrats Tout Enforcement Credentials


The Democrats’ turn toward messaging about immigration that includes a new emphasis on law enforcement is not just a matter of wording. Over the past several years, Democrats have been enthusiastic partners in supporting the Department of Homeland Security in its immigrant crackdown.


In Congress, they have called for multibillion dollar increases to the president’s own proposed budget for border security and immigration enforcement. And they are boasting about their enforcement credentials.


When distributing its polling report to Congress, the Center for American Progress also included a talking points memo entitled, “Immigration Enforcement: Democratic Accomplishments.”


According to the memo, Democrats have:


* “Funded an extra 3,000 Border Patrol agents (nearly 18,000 total), as well as an additional 200 Customs and Border Protection agents, 4,500 detention beds, and border surveillance equipment.”

* “Supported state and local law enforcement through homeland security grant programs, assistance to agencies along the border….”

* “Directed $35 billion to the Department of Homeland Security for FY 2008—$3 billion more than the Republicans in FY 2007—with $2.7 billion in emergency spending for border security.”

* “Mandated the completion of an additional 370 miles of border fencing by the end of 2008.”


The memo notes: “Republicans in Washington have failed to control our borders. Since taking charge of Congress in 2007, Congressional Democrats have restored our nation’s commitment to the border and first responders, providing the resources we need to protect our country.”