Democrats are in a tough spot on immigration reform. Actually, make that a number of tough spots.
For one thing, they’re caught between pandering to Latino constituents who want them to strike a deal that legalizes millions of illegal immigrants and catering to organized labor, which adamantly opposes the one element of reform Republicans say must be part of the deal: guest workers.
For another, now that Democrats control Congress and the White House, they’ve run out of excuses as to why they’re doing nothing.
But at the same time, they’d rather not do anything because as long as there is a stalemate, they can use the issue against Republicans.
After all, there are two ways to get ahead in politics: Make yourself look good or make your opponent look bad.
The immigration debate – and the xenophobic language that some Republicans have carelessly infused into it – helps Democrats look good to their Latino constituents.
But the spell is wearing off now that Latinos are beginning to wonder why Democrats can’t deliver immigration reform even when they have power. Answer: Because not all of them want to deliver.
It’s hard to know in which camp falls Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who recently called a hearing of a Senate subcommittee to explore the feasibility of achieving – or even discussing – immigration reform in the midst of an economic recession.
One of the high points was the testimony of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who spelled out what most economists won’t say: “Illegal immigration has made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy.”
Meanwhile, labor claims the bad economy makes it unfeasible to bring in hundreds of thousands of new workers for jobs that Americans should be doing.
But that argument is disingenuous. The unions were just as opposed to guest workers when the economy was good.
That’s because one thing that hasn’t changed is that organized labor still sees itself as being in the protection business – protecting its members from the competition represented by foreign workers.
Democrats favor a reform package that would legalize the undocumented while making a cursory pass at border enforcement. But the package would leave out any mention of guest workers.
Yet ditching guest workers is an effective way to ensure that not a single Republican, in either the House or the Senate, will sign on to the final product. In fact, two of the most forceful champions for immigration forces in the GOP – Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl – already have made clear that they won’t support any compromise that doesn’t include a temporary worker program.
That spells doom for the immigration reform movement because Democratic leaders are going to need at least a handful of Republican votes in the Senate – and could use more in the House – to offset the all-but-certain defections of Blue Dogs who won’t go along with what they consider amnesty for illegal immigrants.
So now it’s time for the advocates of comprehensive immigration reform to think strategically, stop playing politics and concentrate on getting results.
They need to rustle up as much support as possible from Republicans and keep guest workers in the mix if it helps them do so.
They need to look for a middle-of-the-road approach that gives the undocumented a chance to legalize their status but stresses the concept of accountability by requiring those who travel that road to acknowledge that they did wrong and attempt to make amends.
The reformers now need to show they hear the concerns on the other side and stop challenging the motives of those who disagree with them.
Not least of all, the reformers need to take advantage of a powerful yet underutilized weapon: personal empathy.
Many Americans have members of their family tree who arrived on these shores only to experience mistreatment or marginalization because they threatened those already here, either by taking jobs or changing the culture.
And it is those Americans who are just waiting to be converted to the cause of immigration reform, provided their concerns are addressed.
As the party in power, it is up to Democrats to begin the conversion. But first, they have to start the conversation.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org