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Why the silence on immigration in debates?

Citizen Staff Writer

As I watched the presidential debate on television Tuesday night, I waited for the question that never came.

What are you – Sen. John McCain, Sen. Barack Obama – going to do about illegal immigration, about the estimated 12 million folks without legal status living in the shadows?

Just 15 months ago, comprehensive immigration reform was front and center on the national agenda. For obvious reasons, the economy – the Dow dropped 679 points Thursday, gasp – has taken center stage.

But immigration reform tumbled into the orchestra pit a long time ago, without anybody noticing.

Not only was the issue ignored in both presidential debates and the vice presidential debate, it has also largely been absent from the stump speeches of both candidates. With the exception of competing (and inaccurate) ads on Spanish-language channels, the candidates seem to have taken a vow of silencio on illegal immigration.

Tuesday’s 90-minute debate covered much of the same territory as the Sept. 26 debate. Is it too much to ask of the candidates that they move out of their comfort zones, away from talking points, and speak to some other issues of importance to Americans?

You know, the direction of public education, the selection of Supreme Court justices and, pretty please, illegal immigration?

To some degree, the break from the hostile and divisive debate over illegal immigration has been welcome. On the other hand, the problem doesn’t go away just because we stop talking about it. It is intertwined with too many other critical issues.

You can’t talk about a national health care plan without talking about what to do about millions of uninsured illegal immigrants, the cost of whose care now falls on the hospitals. You can’t talk about the economy without considering the negative and positive impacts of illegal immigrant labor. And you can’t talk about public education, as we in Arizona know too well, without a discussion of how to educate English Language Learner students while not breaking the bank.

Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said she sees a lot of energy – and desire for solutions – on this issue at the local and state levels across the United States.

Americans are frustrated with Congress’ failure to pass reform and will be turning on the heat in the coming months, she predicted.

“I think America’s mantra on the issue is going to be ‘Fix it now,’ ” Kelley said.

During Tuesday’s debate, moderator Tom Brokaw asked the candidates to place their priorities in order of how they would address them as president. Neither candidate mentioned immigration.

But members of both camps claim their candidate is committed to addressing immigration reform during a first term.

“The fact that neither candidate is running with the banner in front of them, I’ll grant that point,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who advises the Obama campaign on Hispanic issues. “But the issue is the commitment, and I’m pretty comfortable that we’re going to deal with that thing in the first year.”

He said if McCain is elected, “we’re not going to deal with it.”

Mike Hellon, McCain’s southern Arizona campaign manager, said many issues aren’t being discussed right now, as everybody worries over the economy, but that doesn’t mean nobody is working on them. A McCain presidency would take on illegal immigration in its first term, with securing the border being the first order of business, he said.

“McCain will have to address it sooner and with more focus than Obama because of the political dynamics in our party,” Hellon said.

Prior to Tuesday’s debate, Kelley’s organization sent out a media list of immigration experts available to talk after the debate. Some on the list promised to take calls until 3 a.m.

Not surprisingly, those on the list were able to call it an early night.

The final debate, to be held Wednesday at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island, is to be dedicated to domestic issues. Kelley said CBS newsman Bob Schieffer is moderating and has indicated illegal immigration will be among the topics.

So, Kelley’s group will send out its list of experts again.

They’ll sit waiting for someone to answer or ask a question.

And so will we.

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and adenogean@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.

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