Janesville31°

Immigration is new affirmative action

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Peter A. Brown
November 20, 2007

Immigration is becoming for the 2008 election what affirmative action/racial preferences was 15 years ago—the kind of emotional wedge issue that offers Republicans a way to split rank-and-file Democrats from their leaders.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the battle over programs aimed at helping minorities was a major factor in many political campaigns. The election results often appeared to contradict what seemed to be the public’s opinion on the issue.


Looking back, much of the confusion stemmed from the wording of many poll questions on the subject. They tended to show strong support for “affirmative action,” which was how the programs were described by supporters and, often, the media.


But opponents used the term “racial preferences” to describe programs that often gave minorities an edge in competition for college admission and jobs. When pollsters used that language to describe the programs, they found strong public opposition.


Affirmative action is an issue similar to immigration today, one on which Democratic activists, but not necessarily the mass of party members, differ from the general electorate. Activists often infer their opponents are racially motivated—creating strong and often hostile feelings on both sides.


How immigration plays out politically in 2008 will likely be determined by which side can convince the mass of Americans that their terminology best describes reality.


Efforts to help minorities, which began in the 1960s, became controversial in the 1980s, as whites felt they were victims of reverse discrimination. Democrats, for the most part, supported such programs. Many, but not all, Republicans began calling them “quotas”—a politically powerful term.


In the end, the opponents got the better of the fight. Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, pledging to “mend” but not end affirmative action, which defused it as an issue, at least in his campaign. As time has passed, there has been less reliance on strict numerical guidelines in such programs, and several court decisions have largely reinforced that trend.


Several states banned by referendum programs that gave minorities an edge in admission to state colleges and employment by state agencies and contractors. In others, similar changes took place through administrative order.


These days, the issue has largely disappeared from political campaigns. A consensus has developed around the idea that colleges and employers should make special recruitment efforts to attract minorities but not have lower standards for minorities’ admittance and employment.


When it comes to immigration, the fight is also over terminology and priorities.


President Bush’s plan that died in Congress last spring—mostly because of opposition from his GOP colleagues but with some Democratic help—emphasized the need for “comprehensive reform.”


That’s code for legalizing the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country and offering them a road to citizenship.


Opponents of “comprehensive reform” say anything that legalizes those here without papers, much less creates a process for them to become citizens, is “amnesty.”


They—and clearly the American people—want beefed-up border security and much tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.


The comparison between affirmative action/racial preferences and immigration shows similar challenges for presidential candidates, especially Democrats. In both cases, key portions of the Democratic base—blacks on affirmative action and Hispanics on immigration—feel strongly about the issue and contrary to the general public.


In addition, once the political discussion moves from the general concept to specific ways of implementing it, the politics get messy.


With affirmative action/racial preferences, when the debate turned to specific programs that gave minorities an edge, the issue began to hurt those—mostly Democrats—who supported them.


With immigration it could be that the question of allowing those here illegally to get driver’s licenses becomes the flash point, although Democrats, seeing the polling data on the issue, have been changing their tune. All the leading Democratic presidential candidates had embraced that idea, until late last Wednesday when Sen. Hillary Clinton, quickly following the lead of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer who renounced his support for them earlier in the day, changed her mind, too, and came out against such licenses.


Quinnipiac University polls conducted during the past two weeks found 80-plus percent of voters, including large majorities of Democrats, in Ohio and Pennsylvania—two of the most important general election swing states—are opposed to providing licenses to illegal immigrants.


In Ohio, 55 percent of voters said they were less likely to support a presidential candidate who advocated giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses, compared to 3 percent who said it made them more likely to support a candidate.


The issue provides the opportunity for Republicans to change a political playing field that currently skews against them. Democrats would be wise to consider the comparison with affirmative action/racial preferences in formulating their strategy.



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