Democrats may soon be taking a tougher public position on immigration, according to a confidential study put together by key think tanks close to the party leadership.
The study urges Democrats to adopt more rigid rhetoric when discussing immigration by encouraging office-holders to emphasize "requiring immigrants to become legal" rather than stressing border enforcement and the opening of a path to legalization for the undocumented already here.
Implicit in the report is the notion that Democrats can win wider public support for immigration reform by framing the issue in harsher-sound verbiage and, perhaps, policy.
This message places the focus where voters want it, on what's best for the United States, not what we can/should do for illegal immigrants.
Titled "Winning The Immigration Debate," the study was put together by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Center for American Progress. Its findings, which have been sent to Capitol Hill and have been part of briefing sessions in both the House and the Senate, are based off of polling conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates.
Taken as a whole, the report presents a new prism through which the Democrats should approach the immigration debate. "It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country who are outside the system," it reads. "We must require illegal immigrants to become legal, and reform the laws so this can happen."
Polling for the study revealed that a larger swath of the public was supportive of "requiring" undocumented immigrants already in the country to normalize their status than there was for only offering them legalization as an option. In addition, the report pushes Democrats to argue that immigrants should be required to pay taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks to remain in the country. Those who have a criminal record should be deported. All of these policies were included in last year's immigration reform compromise legislation, which ultimately failed.
"Our view is that this argument threads the needle in favor of comprehensive reform in the most effective way," Jen Palmieri, communications chief for the Center for American Progress, told the Huffington Post.
Added Cecilia Muñoz, senior vice president of policy at the National Council of La Raza and chair of the board at CCIR: "We are not asking people to be for legalization out of altruism. It is perfectly okay for them to be for legalization because that is what fixes the problem... Rather than educate [the public], you can convince them to do the right thing if you call it a requirement as opposed to an effort."
And yet, for some, the new frame represents exactly the wrong direction that the Democrats should be taking, reinforcing the notion that immigrants were problematic and "the offenders."
"There has been no consensus around the Democratic rhetoric in regard to immigration," said one party official who had knowledge of the report. "But it has usually been framed around opportunity, and it was less framed around this punishment rhetoric. We are going to require these people to become legal or we are going to deport [them]? It doesn't challenge the immigrant scapegoating direction of the conversation. It plays right into it."
In support of their new message, the study notes that 88 percent of all voters as well as 84 percent of Hispanic voters had a favorable response to "requiring illegal immigrants to become legal, obey U.S. laws, pay taxes or face deportation." Those numbers changed to 66 percent and 87 percent, respectively, when it was merely "allowing" illegal immigrants to receive earned legal status.
"My sense is that the public is in a fairly tough mood about immigration though not as tough as Lou Dobbs is every night," said Guy Molyneux, who conducted research for the report.
On the campaign trail neither Democratic candidate has deployed the argument that immigrants should be "required" to obtain legal status. Both, in fact, have discussed immigration policy in a frame that the CCIR/CAP report discourages.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, her website reads, "believes comprehensive reform must have as essential ingredients a strengthening of our borders, greater cross-cooperation with our neighbors, strict but fair enforcement of our laws, federal assistance to our state and local governments, strict penalties for those who exploit undocumented workers, and a path to earned legal status for those who are here, working hard, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a high bar."
And in the Democratic debate at Saint Anselm College on June 3, 2007, Sen. Barack Obama argued, "We want to have a situation in which those who are already here, are playing by the rules, are willing to pay a fine and go through a rigorous process should have a pathway to legalization. Most Americans will support that if they have some sense that the border is also being secured."