Not much separates Obama and Clinton on the issues, including immigration, though, once again, there is a significant difference in emphasis.
Obama’s emphasis is immigrant rights, which includes his defense of the Dream Act as a policy he would vigorously pursue as president. It is worth noting that just yesterday, the Maryland state senate in Annapolis held hearings on SB 591 that would afford in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant high school graduates. Ten other states have enacted similar policies, but the Dream Act would establish a federal mandate and include financial aid.
Obama’s emphasis on rights is important because democrats haven’t emphasized immigrant rights issues for more than 20 years (not really since Mondale). It is important to reclaim this way of framing the issue on moral and political grounds as well as tactically for the fall campaign. By framing immigration within a constitutional rights context, an attack line against McCain emerges: Bush threw away the constitution post 911, McCain would leave it in the trash, but Obama would retrieve it, dust it off and return it to its revered place…
Clinton, on the other hand, emphasized the virtual fence, which she described as a friendly/ compassionate alternative to the bricks and mortar fences being constructed along the US-Mexico border. So on the one hand, Clinton seeks a less punitive immigration enforcement policy than Bush/McCain, but it is important to see that her emphasis remains on enforcement rather than services or rights.
In addition, the virtual fence opens a Pandora’s box into a surveillance society that would intrude on everyone’s rights, immigrants and citizens. The virtual fence is part of a larger immigration control complex that includes SBInet, US-Visit and Real ID. These acronyms describe a fully integrative project that will endeavor to monitor and control immigrants, and in the case of Real ID– all drivers– throughout the country. I would wish each candidate spoke to this component of the issue.
To her credit, Clinton spoke about the need for the federal government to compensate states and local governments for immigrant services they provide. An important point because were this to happen, there would be less support for local anti-immigrant ordinances.
Both Clinton and Obama favored comprehensive reform, but Obama suggested there are different kinds of comprehensive reform. This attempt to go beneath the “comprehensive reform” buzzword shows his attention to policy details.
Both candidates also spoke to the need to help Mexico with its own economy. Once again there are different approaches here. Although the candidates didn’t make the linkages to free trade, they are evident; Hopefully, Obama would follow through on fair-trade substitutes for NAFTA, which would provide greater incentive for Mexican workers to stay in Mexican jobs, rather than crossing the border without papers in search of jobs in the States.
In sum, a different narrative is at work in the two campaigns. Obama’s narrative more closely adheres to the story of American democracy adhering to constitutional rights. Obama here shows how language really does make a difference. By emphasizing the need to stop demonizing immigrants, he makes this compelling foundation for comprehensive immigration reform.
Clinton’s narrative is more a patchwork of micro policy, like a series of short stories, with allusions to personal anecdotes patched together in wonk-like fashion. It may come together but you don’t lose yourself in it. Clearly, Clinton’s immigration policy would benefit from being more integrative and with a stronger master narrative.
Once people lose themselves in Obama’s words, he’s got their vote.