The biggest loser

Massachusetts Democrats need to stop talking about illegal immigration — and fast
By ADAM REILLY  |  June 30, 2006

WORD WAR: Healey is content to let the Democrats follow the script she wrote.
Immigration may be a national issue, but it’s also going to be a major theme in this year’s state elections — and nowhere more than in the Massachusetts governor’s race. The three Democrats — Tom Reilly, Deval Patrick, and Chris Gabrieli — are already dancing around the subject, trying to seem both stern and progressive while using immigration issues to score political points against one another.

This awkward tango was on full display last week, after the Globe reported that several contractors hired by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts employ illegal immigrants. In response, Gabrieli criticized Reilly for taking a laissez-faire tack toward illegal immigrants in his role as attorney general, and hinted he might be open to Republican governor Mitt Romney’s proposal to use state troopers as immigration enforcers. Patrick hammered Reilly for ignoring state laws governing wages and hours — laws that, if enforced, would make it harder for illegal immigrants to find work — but panned Romney’s plan. And although Reilly defended himself by reiterating the argument he’s made for several years (i.e., illegal immigration is a federal issue), he also said, effectively, that Romney’s idea could be worth considering, especially when it comes to tracking down undocumented criminals.

These responses made short-term sense for each candidate, but they also pointed to an ominous lack of foresight. No matter what Massachusetts Democrats say or do about immigration this year, the issue will be their political Achilles’ heel. And the more they talk about it, the happier Kerry Healey is going to be.

A Chinese thumbscrew
The Democrats’ problem is partly structural. Nationally, the immigration debate is pitting Republican against Republican: the GOP’s conservative wing opposes any form of amnesty for immigrants here illegally, but some of the party’s biggest names (George W. Bush, John McCain) back a “path to citizenship” — thanks to pragmatism, kindness, or some mixture of the two. “The Democrats are getting a complete pass on this at the national level,” says Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan, pro-immigration-control think tank in Washington, DC. “They’re having a great time watching the Republicans engage in this divisive fight.”

Here in Massachusetts, however, there’s no such Republican conflict, perhaps because Latino voters don't hold the power base that they do nationally. Romney and Healey speak for the state GOP, and their message is stark: no new entitlements for people who’ve immigrated illegally, and stronger enforcement of existing laws.

Instead, it’s the Democrats who lack cohesion. If the party’s leaders don’t agree with each other, the Democratic base is even more divided. The party’s left wing is dominated by progressives who see compassion as a linchpin of good public policy and favor lenient treatment for immigrants who came here illegally. But the Democratic Party is also the party of unions — and for trade unionists who compete with illegal immigrants for jobs, and see their wages driven down as a result, such indulgence is self-destructive. (Not every union fits this bill: in hotels and restaurants, for example, illegal immigrants represent a large portion of the workforce and a source of union power.)

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Kerry Healey, U.S. Democratic Party,  More more >
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