Belatedly, it seemed to be dawning on the Republican Party that their obstructionism on immigration reform, and their tolerance for the presence in their ranks of racist anti-immigrant bigots, might lose them votes.
So for a couple of months they have toned down the rhetoric a bit. But in Tuesday night's presidential debate, the issue was framed with crystal clarity by both sides. It should be a clarion call for anybody who cares about immigrants' rights to redouble their efforts to defeat Romney and the Republicans.
One of the "town hall" format questioners, identified as Lorraine Osorio, asked Romney: "Mr. Romney, what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?"
To the other questions on Tuesday evening, Romney had answered with crackpot economics, specious data, evasion and spin, but he was very clear on his answer to Ms. Osorio, for those who have ears to hear. And in his reply, Obama nailed Romney on this.
Romney would make it easier for people with advanced skills to come to this country. Not farmers and workers displaced by the selfsame neo-liberal, so-called "free trade" policies that the U.S. elites promote and that have displaced millions. Ms. Osorio probably had in mind janitors, agricultural workers, food service workers, restaurant cooks and busboys, construction workers, home health care workers and others who make up the bulk of undocumented immigrants. But Romney had nothing to offer these folks. He would tailor U.S. legal immigration policy to bringing in more high-credentialed people. This would contribute to the brain drain in poor countries that is a source of bitter complaint against the developed countries.
His position of "self deportation" is unchanged, as is his support for major portions of the Arizona law, S 1070. He adds a twist, namely to increase the use of E-Verify, the government's electronic database that allows employers to check if the Social Security numbers of prospective workers are authentic. This is already being done on a large scale, but Romney would make it obligatory for all employers. This is another way of driving undocumented workers out of the country, but in many cases it will have the effect of driving them, rather, even further underground and into jobs that are even more unhealthy and dangerous, as well as lower paid.
On the issue of the DREAM Act youth, namely youth who were brought here without immigration papers when they were minors and have lived here ever since, the only relief Romney suggests is that they might be allowed to catch a break if they serve in the Armed Forces. This is deceptive, and furthermore won't work.
The Obama administration is implementing an executive initiative whereby an estimated 1,700,000 of these youth can get a temporary legal status (lasting two years, but renewable) plus a work permit if they came here before their 16th birthday, are 30 years old or less, are not involved in criminal activity, and meet certain other requirements. This is a temporary administrative fix, but it is at least something. The Obama administration is also administratively closing some cases which would otherwise lead to deportation, if the individuals in questions don't have criminal records. Also, it has announced a new policy which will make it far easier for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens to regularize their immigration status;
Romney's approach would depend on more than a million and a half undocumented immigrant youth being accepted into the U.S. military. The total personnel of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard at present is about two and a half million. Obviously, only a few of these undocumented youth could catch a break by means of the recruiting sergeant. What about the rest?
Romney criticizes Obama for not having pushed for comprehensive immigration reform early in his term. In this he is echoing a criticism that has been made by many in the immigrants' rights movement, including me. He manages to forget that the Republicans were fighting tooth and nail against any progressive immigration reform at that time. And what immigration reform would the Romney administration and the Republicans have passed? To make immigrant families so miserable that they would "self-deport", in Romney's own words. Chase them from pillar to post, deny them the most basic services, make them fear any contact with authority, and maybe they will just get out.
This is one reason why Latino voters, who are the group most concerned about how immigrants are treated, are showing an overwhelming tendency to support Obama and the Democrats. But the Republicans are going to try to cut that vote down by onerous voter ID rules and other vote suppression gimmicks.
The turnout of the Latino voters, it seems, is a vitally important factor in this election.
Photo: 2006 march for immigrants' rights in Saint Louis, Mo. Elizabeth Jenkins // CC 2.0