- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Immigration has surged back onto the political battlefield this week after Republicans exposed deep fissures on the issue in their debate Tuesday, and Democrats wasted little time in exploiting those divisions, with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley announcing a historic sit-down dinner with illegal immigrants.

The dinner is being organized by advocacy groups eager to try to mainstream illegal immigrants, bringing them out of the shadows and to the forefront of the 2016 campaigns. They said Mr. O’Malley will be making history when he dines with the Ramirez family in Austin, Texas, on Thursday.

Mr. O’Malley is calculating that his appeal can help him gain ground within the Democratic primary — and his campaign took aim at the front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for using the term “illegal immigrants” in a town hall appearance earlier this week.

On the GOP side, meanwhile, the battle between Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich over immigration, which surfaced in Tuesday night’s debate, continued, with Mr. Trump vowing to form a “deportation force” to kick out more illegal immigrants, just as he said President Eisenhower was able to do in the 1950s with the deeply controversial “Operation Wetback.”

“You do it. Because they’re here illegally, you do it,” Mr. Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

Mr. Kasich, meanwhile, has positioned himself as the chief proponent within the GOP field of legalizing illegal immigrants. He called Mr. Trump’s plans “silly” on Tuesday night.

“If people think that we are going to ship 11 million people who are law-abiding, who are in this country, and somehow pick them up at their house and ship them to Mexico, think about the families. Think about the children,” he said.

His remarks drew effusive praise from immigrant rights groups, who said he was right to stand up to Mr. Trump and called on the rest of the GOP to follow his lead.

“Republicans risk blowing a huge opportunity,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund. “Do they want to be seen as the mass-deportation party? That’s a problem that would follow them to the polls.”

Still, activists chided both Mr. Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the other candidate most prominently calling for legalization of illegal immigrants, for refusing to back President Obama’s own immigration plans, which include a deportation amnesty.

Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have no hesitation about embracing Mr. Obama’s executive amnesty, and all three top contenders have even promised to try to expand it — and have criticized the federal appeals court that issued a ruling this week blocking the program, calling it illegal.

Mr. O’Malley in particular is banking on appealing to Hispanic voters and other Democrats eager for a more generous policy toward illegal immigrants.

On Thursday he will sit down with the Ramirez family in Austin, Texas. The parents and four of the six children in the family are in the country without authorization — though some of those children have earned a tentative status under Mr. Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty for so-called Dreamers.

A handful of immigrant rights groups have invited all of the major 2016 candidates from both parties to attend similar dinners, saying it will give them a chance to hear firsthand about the struggles of families with mixed immigration status, and the devastation that could be wrought on them if the ones in the country illegally were forced to return to their home countries.

“It’s unfair to make decisions or stake out positions that affect real people’s lives without sitting down and learning what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, one of the groups sponsoring the dinners.

Mr. O’Malley is the first to accept the invitation, which went out last week. His campaign did not reply to a request for comment.

GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina has already declined, the groups said. Her campaign also didn’t respond to a request for comment on that decision.

Mrs. Fiorina’s stance tends more toward Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush on immigration. While saying the border must be secured, she has also said she would be open to granting most illegal immigrants some form of legal status and granting a path to citizenship to Dreamers, or illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

The debate within the GOP is getting the most attention, but there are differences among the Democratic candidates — chiefly on tone.

Mrs. Clinton has taken fire this week for comments at a New Hampshire town hall where she appeared to brag about her 2006 vote as a U.S. senator to back building hundreds of miles of border fencing — a vote that still angers some immigrant rights activists.

In those remarks Mrs. Clinton said she backed “a barrier to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.” Her wording, however, drew a stern response from activists.

“Not only is Hillary’s casual use of the word ‘illegal’ offensive and dismissive, it shows us that she is out of touch with the community she claims to be advocating for by reducing them to a derogatory term,” said Hina Naveed, co-director of Dream Action Coalition. “There is no room to uplift a community when the conversation begins by taking away their identity.”

Advocates say their preferred term is “undocumented.”

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