Eric Ruark's picture

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  by  Eric Ruark

The presidential primaries will become more interesting in the new year as voters will decide which candidate they prefer for their party’s nomination. The Iowa Caucus is February 1 and the New Hampshire primary is the following week. By the end of February, when Nevadans and South Carolinians have also weighed in, we will see whether Bernie Sanders can pose a challenge to Hillary Clinton, and whether Donald Trump’s dominance of media coverage translates to support in the voting booth.

What we have learned so far from the debates is that immigration policy will play a large role in the Republican contest, while the Democrats have spent very little time even acknowledging that this is a contentious issue, let alone talking about their plans to “reform” the system if elected. In the last Democratic primary debate on December 15, immigration was little more than an aside, and one of the the hot topics of the moment, the resettlement of Syrian refugees, was quickly passed over without any substantive discussion. This approach belies the standard media line that the enforcement-first position of Trump, and increasingly of Cruz and Christie, is an albatross around the Republican Party’s neck. If the Democratic candidates’ positions on immigration issues (blanket amnesty, large annual increases in legal admissions and guest workers, resettlement of refugees without proper vetting) were popular with the electorate they would go out of their way to make these positions clear to voters. That hasn’t happened so far.

On the Republican side, due to Trump’s unforeseen entry into the race, the debate over immigration has gone far beyond the platitudes expressed by Jeb Bush and the duplicity demonstrated by Rubio in trying to distance himself from the Gang of Eight bill. In fact, the dust-up between Rubio and Ted Cruz over amnesty has become one of the most interesting aspects of the race so far – and it is a debate the voters need to hear. Clearly the two men have opposing positions on amnesty when it comes to their voting records. Cruz can do a better job pointing that out and in articulating what he is is for, but no amount of disinformation from the Rubio camp can change the fact that Cruz voted against Rubio’s immigration bill, which would have amnestied 12 million illegal aliens and tripled annual admissions of legal immigrants going forward, adding 33 million new work permit holders to the U.S. population in just the first ten years.

If there is ever going to be a substantive discussion about what the country’s immigration policy should be moving forward, candidates have to talk numbers. Semantic wrangling over what constitutes “amnesty” distracts from the main point. Amnesty isn’t about semantics, it’s about work permits. Too many of the political class fail to understand this. It is a safe bet that that all candidates running would eventually support some form of amnesty – which is anything that grants legal status to people currently in the country illegally. The crucial distinction on this point is whether that amnesty comes after enforcement mechanisms are up and running. Next in importance is what conditions illegal aliens must meet before they are allowed to convert to legal status. What is the terminal point of that status, i.e., citizenship or not? And there must be an unwavering commitment to remove illegal aliens who do not meet, or refuse to comply, with the set conditions. A conditional amnesty is still amnesty, but conditions are ultimately the heart of the matter.

Republican candidates need to do less posturing and be more precise in discussing immigration policy. The American people need to hear whether or not a candidate supports adding one million immigrants a year to the U.S. population, and whether or not they support the provision that Speaker Paul Ryan snuck into the budget omnibus that quadruples the number of low-skilled guest workers; or Cruz’s proposed legislation with Sen. Jeff Sessions that would end the visa lottery and strengthen protections for American tech workers. For their part, Democratic candidates need to attempt to explain to the American people how their expansionist immigration policies will raise wages, and how the massive importation of low-skilled workers is good for Black Americans in places like, oh, say Baltimore for example.

Clarification about what one means by “immigration reform” is important, as too is the debate about how best to keep Americans safe from terrorists. But the livelihood of tens of millions of Americans who are out of work should take center stage in the coming months. Immigration reform is about the numbers.

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Elections 2016

Updated: Fri, Feb 19th 2016 @ 10:18am EST

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