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The biggest loser

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Massachusetts Democrats need to stop talking about illegal immigration — and fast

6/30/2006 9:35:04 AM

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.)

Then, too, there’s the large number of legal immigrants who call Massachusetts home — some of whom belong to the aforementioned trade unions, and some of whom think that, since they had to jump through certain hoops to settle in the US, so should everybody else, dammit. “Go to the North End and ask 10 guys on the street about illegal immigrants and the in-state tuition bill, or them taking jobs from people,” says one Republican strategist. “I tell you what — they’ll probably be very anti-illegal-immigrant.”

From Healey’s point of view, that’s the beauty of the illegal-immigration issue. It pits Democrat against Democrat, and increases the likelihood of Election Day defections to the GOP. (Healey must think it’s a winner among independents, too, since she also needs to win over un-enrolled voters, who make up over half the Massachusetts electorate.) Last week, as if responding on cue, Democrats found themselves grasping for ways to retain the loyalties of anti-immigration voters.

“There’s a sense that, when times are bad, people want to blame somebody else,” says a source close to Gabrieli. “The perception is, ‘State government isn’t doing anything for me, but for some person who came here illegally, the government’s helping them. It’s giving them a handout.’ That drives people crazy. . . . As a Democrat, you have to inoculate yourself in some way against that attack.”

This conviction explains why Gabrieli — who was slow to knock the in-state tuition proposal in a Phoenix interview held near the beginning of his campaign — has sharpened his anti-illegal-immigrant tone as of late. But while there’s recent precedent for this sort of 11th-hour liberal shift rightward (e.g., Bill Clinton’s support for welfare reform), it still poses serious problems. For starters, the cover-your-ass strategy is fundamentally reactive: Healey gets to talk about one of her pet issues, but the Democrats don’t get to talk about theirs. What’s more, every extra ounce of newsprint or minute of airtime devoted to illegal immigration reinforces the notion that it’s one of the top issues in the governor’s race. The issue, perhaps — ahead of jobs, education, and affordable housing.

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