Immigration Issue Caught in Election-Year Crossfire

The 19th-century military strategist Carl von Clausewitz observed that war is politics by other means – cautioning that war can’t and shouldn’t be undertaken except to advance a legitimate and carefully-considered policy objective. This was a radical idea at a time when absolute monarchs might go to war simply because they could, to avenge a slight or gratify a narcissistic sense of nationalism.

If Clausewitz lived in our time, one wonders what he’d make of the long series of skirmishes that constitute a modern American presidential campaign. Perhaps he would conclude that politics is war by other means; why else do we call them “campaigns?” He might have cautioned the participants: pick your battles carefully, and make sure you think through your objectives before you start shooting. Ready, fire, aim is not a winning strategy.

In practical terms, taking a page from Clausewitz might mean something like this: don’t get out on a limb with positions so extreme that you’ll be hard-pressed to govern if you win the campaign – or worse yet, so extreme that you never win the election. These considerations are certainly on the minds of presidential campaign strategists on both sides of the aisle, especially when it comes to hot-button issues like immigration.

On the Democratic side, President Obama has tried to strike a delicate – perhaps impossible – balance, hoping to satisfy both poles of the immigration debate: in bold strokes, the “pro-enforcement” and “pro-immigrant” camps. For the pro-enforcement side, the Obama administration has apprehended and removed (deported) record numbers of undocumented immigrants, in an ill-starred bid to appease the “seal-the-border” lobby, to pave the way for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) that never happened.

As the election draws closer, the administration is aggressively courting the pro-immigrant camp – read: Latino voters – by ordering federal immigration authorities to ease up on removal (deportations) of immigrant detainees with no criminal record. (See U.S. to Review Cases Seeking Deportations, by Julia Preston, New York Times, 17.Nov.2011. See also 17.Jul.2011 Prosecutorial Discretion Memorandum, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and 17.Nov.2011 Case-by-Case Review Memorandum, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Knowing that Latino voters will be pivotal in the next election, White House strategists are waging their charm offensive on other fronts as well, challenging state-level anti-immigrant laws in federal court, hoping to show their pro-immigrant bona fides, despite their failure to stand and deliver on CIR. (Whether Latino voters will be charmed or offended remains to be seen).

Meanwhile, on the GOP side, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is taking “friendly fire” from fellow conservatives for saying we need a more humane and sensible approach to illegal immigrants – something more practical than simply trying to deport them all. Gingrich said:

“If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.” (See Could Gingrich Immigration Stance Be Shrewd Move,” by Ted Robbins, National Public Radio, 23.Nov.2011.)

Gingrich prefaced this remark by saying, “If you’ve come here recently you have no ties to this country, you oughta go home, period.”

Gingrich may be trying to have it both ways, but he has extended an olive branch to Latino voters, and his charm offensive may prove helpful to his party’s chances in 2012 – although it remains to be seen whether Latino voters will be charmed or offended by his proposal to let “citizen juries” decide which illegal immigrants get to stay. (See Gingrich: Citizen Juries Should Decide Which Illegal Immigrants Stay or Go, by Suzy Khimm, Washington Post, 27.Nov.2011.) In any case, Gingrich has lots of company among the many Republican strategists now worrying about the Latino vote, after all the years of anti-immigrant rhetoric as a GOP trademark. (See As Voting Approaches, Questions Over Republicans’ Outreach to Latinos Increase, by Javier Ortiz, The Hill, Congress Blog, 28.Nov. 2011.) Even Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party Republican, has been urging his party to moderate its immigration rhetoric to avoid alienating Latino voters. (See Rubio Tells GOP to Shift Tone on Immigration, Fox News Latino, 15.Nov.2011.)

Whatever the merits of Gingrich’s proposals, he has advanced the immigration debate by breaking ranks with party orthodoxy, facing up to the immigration issue rather than sounding retreat, as most conservatives did after the collapse of President George W. Bush’s campaign for comprehensive immigration reform. Gingrich seems to be positioning himself as a centrist; he remarked recently that having 20 percent of the electorate may give him an influential movement, but only a governing majority will allow him to accomplish anything useful – and that means governing from the middle, not from the lofty ramparts of ideological purity. Gingrich has likely determined that moderation on immigration will help him win both the nomination battle and the battle for the White House; looking to his long-term objectives, it might give him a fighting chance of passing immigration reform, if he ever gets to the White House.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.