Immigration Issue About to Cross the Media Border

By Al Giordano

Today marks the opening round in a very “outcome determinative” contest among the US presidential candidates to either frame a clear position on immigration reform or be framed by it.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) holds its annual conference in Washington DC, and, there, the Democrats will have the upper hand. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will receive their annual award tonight. New York Senator Hillary Clinton will address the group this afternoon. And it’s all preceded by a “leadership luncheon” at noon led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) and US Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), all of them Democrats (as are most Latino elected officials across the country.)

But that’s just the pre-game show. On Saturday, both Obama and McCain will address the group.

During last year’s Univision debate among Democratic presidential aspirants, translated real-time, the Spanish-language network asked its viewers to send in questions for the candidates. It received thousands of responses, more than 70 percent of them asking about immigration reform. For the Mexican-American majority among Latinos in the US, as well as many others, that’s the big issue: whether 12 million undocumented Americans will continue to be harassed and hounded and forced into the shadows (and whether Hispanic-American US citizens will continue to be persecuted on the pretext of searching for "illegals"), or whether – as with all previous generations of immigrants – they will be provided a reasonable path to citizenship.

Interestingly, this is perhaps the one issue in which George W. Bush took real leadership during his two terms in office, bucking the fringe elements of his party to promote an Immigration Reform Bill last year, which was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators including McCain and Obama. The right-wing talk radio and blogosphere noise machines cranked up and divided the GOP, generated hundreds of thousands of calls into Congress (crashing the US Capitol switchboard) and senators of both parties that had said they would support the bill caved in to the haters.

As the video above recounts, McCain’s then front-running campaign for the Republican nomination crashed and almost burned out: he ran out of money, had to lay off most of his staff, and his poll numbers tanked until he was able to break through again last January in New Hampshire as his chief rivals – Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee – one-by-one fell from their own noticeable shortcomings, leaving McCain the last Republican standing.

There is a significant sector on the right that does not forgive McCain for his mainstream views on immigration. And there is a natural tendency among Hispanic-Americans to favor Democrats over Republicans – one that Spanish-speaking George W. Bush was able to minimize against Al Gore and John Kerry in the previous presidential elections.

Here’s a recent recount of what percentages of Hispanic-Americans cast their votes for Democratic presidential candidates in the past 28 years:

76 percent: Jimmy Carter's share of the Latino vote in 1976.

72 percent: Bill Clinton's share at reelection in 1996.

67 percent: Al Gore's share in winning the popular vote in 2000.

56 percent: John Kerry's share in his loss to George W. Bush in '04.


Note how the Democrats' lead among Hispanic-Americans has steadily decreased, mainly because of the inroads made, first in Texas, by George W. Bush. But as of today, Obama is surging ahead among Hispanic-Americans, with 60 percent to just 23 for McCain.

Gebe Martinez of Politico describes the pincer grip that has McCain squeezed on both sides of the issue, mostly through his own fault, because during the GOP primaries McCain backpedaled and turned against his own bill:

“I don’t think [McCain] can appease the hard-core xenophobes and convince the Latinos he is standing up for them at the same time,” said Cecilia Munoz, senior vice president of NCLR (National Council of La Raza), who has been in the middle of immigration bill negotiations. “I think he has to pick a side and make it clear. Is he going after the votes of the xenophobes?”
Were his failed bill to come up again, he would not vote for it, he said


Robert Oscar Lopez offers detailed nuance, via Counterpunch, on Obama and Hispanic voting groups:

Latinos are not a captive constituency like African Americans on the left, or white evangelicals on the right. We usually split 60/40 between Democrats and Republicans with a significant subset amenable to switching sides. The split is partly related to the differences among Central Americans and Cubans, who can lean Republican, and Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, who tend to lean Democratic. But we have a collective identity, as evidenced by the solvency of pan-Latino media companies (Univision in Spanish or SiTV in English). We feel a commonality even if we can never articulate what exactly makes us all Latino, so in spite of our diversity, we aren’t Balkanized. No umbrella group is so unpredictable and yet so culturally cohesive. If a party gets lost in the mixed signals, it can pay the price at election time; just ask Ken Mehlman. In 2006, when Republicans appeared nastier than Democrats on immigration, Latino support for the GOP dropped to around 28%, and the Democrats stormed Congress.


That nuance, however, is more relevant to the contest in Florida (where the more diverse Latino vote will be topic of separate upcoming threads here) than to the hotly contested western states targeted by Obama for liberation from GOP dominance in recent presidential elections: Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, as well as some potential for surprise in Texas and Arizona if he can solidify his big lead among those voters.

In the Southwest, Mexican-Americans are practically the whole ball game when it comes to “the Latino vote.” And there, the immigration reform question is that which matters ahead of all others.

This weekend’s NALEO conference in Washington, with 1,000 elected and appointed officials, is really, though, just the warm up: In a little more than two weeks both McCain and Obama will both address the National Council of La Raza conference in San Diego on July 13. An expected audience of 20,000 await them there. High stakes, much?

But we’ll know on Saturday a lot more about how McCain and Obama are going to navigate this river. McCain is going to have to choose which parts of the GOP base he will alienate: He can’t please both Hispanic Repubicans and the xenophobe fringe.

For Obama, though, there is also a whiff of precariousness in the current: If at any moment over the upcoming months he equivocates or is perceived as trying to establish a foothold to the right of McCain on Immigration Reform, he will risk his big lead and his chances in those important western swing states.

Beginning today, the immigration issue is crossing the media curtain - another kind of border - and into mainstream debate in the US presidential campaign.

So far, this sub-contest is Obama's to lose.

And if he plays it honestly, directly and coherently, it is also Obama's to win.

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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