11/19/2007 06:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats' Uneasy Dance with Xenophobia

The prospect of Lou Dobbs short-lived presidential candidacy was the cherry on the cake of a campaign already deeply infused with hostility to immigrants and foreigners. It is easy (and appropriate) to demonize Republicans for demonizing immigrants, but Democrats share some responsibility, not only for not fighting back more vigorously on the issue, but also because they are uncomfortable talking about it, let alone leading on it.

The ease with which right-wing anti-immigrants, assorted racists and their close allies including Rudy Giuliani have been able to merge the issues of immigration, crime and terrorism happened in no small part because most leading Democrats stood by, uncomfortably silent, while Mexican workers were essentially accused of plotting to blow up American malls and/or of pillaging entire Iowa communities.

The recent commotion about undocumented immigrants and U.S. driver's licenses was typical. Hillary Clinton, always one to shy away from anything remotely controversial, truly has had half-a-dozen positions in as many weeks, a sure sign that she is caught between a rock and a hard place (in the meanwhile, of course, we have yet to hear from John Edwards on the issue besides his hammering away at Clinton's own indecisiveness).

As telling of Democrats' lack of grasp on immigration is Chris Dodd's silly statement during the Philadelphia debate that licenses are "a privilege." What the hell is that supposed to mean? That driving is more of a privilege than being allowed into the country to begin with? He then appeared to try to make up for it all during the Nevada debate by bringing up his Peace Corps days in the Dominican Republic (in Spanish no less), and it just ended up sounding like the sadly familiar patronizing tone so many Democrats take when discussing immigrants and foreign issues.

Immigration is the principal, though not only issue on which Democratic candidates have to perform a strange, convoluted dance that allows them to communicate in code to their often xenophobic native-born base. Since most Americans witness daily the hard work and humble life of many immigrants, it is hard for them to argue that they are taking away good-paying union jobs that they themselves would kill for (they'd actually happily kill not to do the jobs).

The same cannot be said for those other foreigners, further away and therefore invisible, who benefit from, gasp, outsourcing and free trade with the U.S. Isn't it ironic that after decades of exporting unnecessary, overpriced goods to countries often strong-armed into buying them, Americans are so resentful about Indian and Brazilian workers wanting to make a buck themselves?

At the other end of the labor spectrum, it is saying something that Microsoft and other normally omnipotent corporations have not been able to convince enough lawmakers of either party to allow more "qualified" foreign workers to be allowed into the U.S. (on H1 visas). Perhaps, in this case, Americans believe that they deserve those high-paying software development and engineering jobs, no matter how unqualified they are for them? Or are they just cutting their nose to spite their face: denying unfilled U.S. jobs to potential immigrants simply speeds up outsourcing as most companies looking for growth (as they all do) will move operations elsewhere.

Free trade, and to a lesser extent outsourcing, are complex issues and neither party has come close to figuring out a way forward. For instance, Democrats could pay a real price for Bill Clinton's trade agreements, bilateral or otherwise, that don't include strong provisions about the environment, work conditions and social benefits (in just a few fell swoops, he outsourced pollution, child labor and 100-hour work weeks; for some reason, this now makes Hillary chuckle). Republicans too are in a strange position, as the party of an unfettered free-market economy that hinders the free flow of labor and of extremely strategic goods such as peanuts.

Even the backlash against Chinese exports was tinged with no little hypocrisy, xenophobia and, perhaps, racism: yes the shoddy quality control on exported toys and medication is criminal (literally), but is it more so than the environmental and social havoc created by the U.S.'s own highly profitable international business activities over the past few decades?

Speaking of international business activities, since the tide of American public opinion on Iraq turned a couple of years ago, the emphasis has been nearly exclusively on the U.S. toll in lives lost and funds wasted. There is extraordinary little attention paid in the presidential campaign to the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis, or the millions of displaced Iraqi families. Even Democrats are remarkably timid on the subject, as if they wanted to avoid any little bit of guilt, or as if Iraqi lives were exponentially less important, or both.

In a campaign year in which real, actual flesh-and-blood, hard-working people are routinely called "illegals," not just in the mouth of nutjobs such as Tom Tancredo or Dobbs, but in that of "moderates" like Giuliani and self-styled liberals (ha!) such as Chris Matthews, Democrats continue to lumber along, setting a wrong foot on either side of the thin line between an enlightened international view and loyalty to U.S. labor. More often than not, they land firmly on the side of the latter, probably rightly assuming there are more votes to be won there in the short-term.

A little further down the road, though, Democrats should have tremendous fear about their uncertain handling of immigration, free trade, and foreign wars, as they cannot rely on Republicans' inane prejudice alone to motivate the growing number of first and second generation immigrant voters, or to generate goodwill with the U.S.'s international partners. Perhaps, in that sense at least, the Democrats' best hope is Barack Obama, who has so far managed these issues with the most grace and intelligence (surely due in no little part to his own multinational and multi-ethnic background), campaigning in a way that does not dismiss or patronize immigrants and foreigners, and pays due respect and priority to all U.S. workers. Such deft handling is imperative for Democrats. After all, first and second-generation immigrant voters may have been the single most important deciding factor in propelling the White House career of at least one GOP politician: one in two Latinos voted for George W. Bush in his successful 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaign, as well as in Florida in 2000, where a closer than expected vote and a corrupt Supreme Court allowed him to snatch a victory from Al Gore.