Why Democrats Should Pick A Fight On Immigration

The great thing about racists is they'll always take the bait. You won't get far into an immigration-reform debate, for instance, before the GOP's more zealous legislators start doing things like criminalizing priests and calling Miami a "third world country." Which is why Democrats ought to be more eager to spend 2010 debating immigration.

Back in summer 2009, that looked like the plan. President Obama made a big show of brainstorming reforms, by holding a White House summit and meeting with legislators in both parties. New York Sen. Charles Schumer teamed up with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to work on a bipartisan bill and immigration seemed destined to get space at the top of the 2010 agenda.

Now, of course, Graham remains the lone Republican onboard and the congressional calendar remains clogged with the bipartisan blockades of 2009. It's hard to imagine where Democrats will wedge meaningful immigration reform in between health insurance, jobs and banking.

Nonetheless, reform advocates have run out of patience–and the White House is once again very publicly brainstorming the issue. The president [was scheduled to meet] with Schumer and Graham Monday [it was rescheduled for Thursday] for what Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton described as "getting an update from them on efforts to create bipartisan immigration legislation." One gets the feeling Obama's trying merely to get in front of a conversation that's destined to heat up, with a reform rally on the National Mall set for March 21 and tea partiersprepping an April response.

But Democrats would be wise to do a good bit more than parade Schumer around. Lay to the side the clear economic and moral arguments for fixing our corrupt, exploitive system. Immigration reform is an issue where Democrats are served better politically by picking a fight with the GOP than running from one. The long-term politics are plain: Latino communities nationwide are young, growing and increasingly ready to show up at the polls. And the certain-to-be xenophobic reactionof the GOP's loudest voices today will not only motivate Latinos this November, it will alienate independent voters as well.

Obama's hearty embrace of immigration reform served Democrats well in 2008 (a fact the National Council of La Raza is reminding him of in a new ad; see below). Polling wonks split hairs over whether the Latino vote turned any states, but the fact that we're down to hairs is enough. Latino voters arguably made victory possible in places as disparate as Indiana and Florida, and their political networks have only matured since. Throughout both the South and the Midwest, motivated Latino voters can strengthen Democrats' hand. And after the party's tin-eared 2009, in which it squandered its reform capital while courting enemies, Obama and the Dems could surely use at least one motivated voting bloc this fall.

Article originally appeared at The Nation on March 8, 2010.

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