The word “amnesty” appears to have become as bad a word in the Republican lexicon as the word “liberal.” Judging from the New Hampshire debate on January 5, none of the Republicans wanted to have the word “amnesty” stuck to them. When we get to the election, you can bet whoever is the Republican candidate will try to defame the Democratic challenger by calling him/her a “liberal” who believes in “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Republicans, particularly Mitt Romney, have made illegal immigration a primary issue in the campaign, and yet their solutions to the problem are completely out of touch with reality. I went to all the websites for the major Republican and Democratic candidates to see their proposed solutions for addressing the issue of illegal immigration. What I found was quite revealing and troubling.

The Republican candidates have generally framed the issue in terms of law and order, and anti-terrorism. For instance, Romney’s website says that “[w]e must secure the border, implement an enforceable employer verification system, punish sanctuary cities and reject amnesty if we are to restore Americans’ faith in the rule of law.” [All italics are mine.] Huckabee’s statement adds, “immigration is not only an economic issue, but also a national security issue.” Giuliani expresses the same sentiment when he says we need to “protect our citizens by controlling America’s borders.” Fred Thompson uses much the same language. The only Republican dissenter is John McCain (I will come back to him).

By listening to the Republicans one would think that these 12 million undocumented immigrants are running roughshod over our communities, vandalizing city streets and terrorizing mothers and their children. While technically they are breaking the law, the immigrants are the ones who live in fear and are exploited because of it. The overwhelming majority are not terrorists or criminals, but humble law-abiding citizens seeking to eke out a living for themselves and their families back home. Because of their illegal status, they are easy targets for coercion and manipulation by unscrupulous employers. But the Republicans would have us believe otherwise.

The Democratic candidates frame the issue quite differently. All four of the major candidates (Obama, Clinton, Edwards and Richardson) start by acknowledging the current immigration system is broken and dysfunctional. Second, they affirm the historic American tradition of supporting the family, and seek to preserve immigrant family integrity. Third, they talk about creating a pathway to citizenship for million illegal immigrants. Finally, they talk about working with foreign governments, particularly in Latin America, to help strengthen their economies. While they acknowledge that a dimension of the issue is border security, this is not their major focus. I think Bill Richardson sums up the Democratic position when he says:

“Building a fence will not increase security, just as attempting to deport 12 million illegal immigrants is not feasible or reasonable. I believe a realistic immigration reform plan must address the problem from all sides — securing the border, penalizing employers for knowingly hiring illegal workers, offering a tough but reasonable path to legalization, engaging Mexico in the reform process, and improving our current immigration quota system.”

On this issue John McCain is more of a Democrat than a Republican. While acknowledging the border security issue, McCain goes on to give a realistic assessment. He says we must recognize…
– the importance of building strong allies in Mexico and Latin America
– the importance of pro-growth policies
– the importance of a flexible labor market
– the importance of assimilation of our immigrant population.

Then like the Democrats he advocates a pathway to citizenship, and for that he is branded with the scarlet letter “A” for Amnesty.

The Republican (minus McCain) position on immigration reminds me of the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s who opposed all Irish and Italian immigrants, and whose solution to the slavery issue was to ship all blacks back to Africa. Their philosophy was that the U.S. should remain an Anglo-Saxon country (while conveniently ignoring the fact that the European invaders had stolen the land from its Native American inhabitants). The Know-Nothing party was a last gasp before a dramatic change occurred in the U.S. culture, starting with the emancipation and enfranchisement of the slaves and then continuing with the mass immigration of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Today, we are on the verge of as significant a change in U.S. culture. The notion of America as the “melting pot” where all peoples leave their former culture and to take on an “American” identity is going by the board. We are now in a global society where the fastest selling cars in the U.S. are made by Toyota and where most of what we buy and use is not produced here. Our telephone and consumer service centers are located in India, and telemarketers call us from anywhere in the world. We are at a point where, as sociologist Ronald Takaki says, we must look at our society through a “different mirror,” a multicultural, pluralistic mirror.

The illegal immigration issue is a sign and a symptom of the change that has taken place in our society and our world. Except for McCain, the Republicans don’t seem to have a clue that the ground is shifting under their feet. The Republican emperor has no clothes.

As I have written before, in my view the immigration issue is a direct result of the NAFTA agreements of the early 1990’s. As long as capital can flow freely across borders, it only makes sense that labor be given the same privilege. Illegal or not, the 12 million undocumented workers are part of a major shift taking place in our world and in American society. So if that means I must wear the scarlet letter “A,” that’s okay; most people already think I’m a liberal as it is.