All eight of the Democratic presidential contenders at Thursday’s debate embraced amnesty for illegal aliens now in the United States, pushing the issue onto the national stage for the presidential contest.
In a debate specifically designed to showcase the candidates for Hispanic voters who were increasingly intrigued by President Bush’s outreach in 2000 and 2001, the Democrats went on record in support of amnesty, a high-profile issue in that community.
“If you had told me three years ago that every Democratic presidential candidate would be aggressively promoting legalization and comprehensive reform, I would have said ‘No way,’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which has called for such reform.
All of the candidates agreed that a form of amnesty is necessary for some or all of the estimated 9 million illegal immigrants living and working in the United States already.
“I believe we have to change it. It’s a matter of human rights, a matter of civil right, a matter of fairness to Americans. It’s essential to have immigration reform,” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who said he wants instant citizenship for those who have lived in the United States for about five years.
Among the others, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri introduced a bill a year ago to grant legal status to those who have lived in the United States for five years and worked for two, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut introduced his own immigration proposal earlier this week to promote legalization, a guest-worker program and increased due process for immigration applicants.
All of the candidates present spoke about the contributions of immigrants and criticized the Bush administration, which had been working on a broad legalization accord before the September 11 terrorist attacks, for not having returned to the issue.
Mr. Sharry said the pressure is now on Mr. Bush.
“It sets up an interesting political dynamic. Will the Bush administration decide they have to do something before 2004?” Mr. Sharry said.
“Will they decide they’d rather disappoint Latinos and Catholics and some of their business supporters, or divide and anger some in the populist base that think there’s too many immigrants already?”
But Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which lobbies for immigration limits and a crackdown on illegal immigrants, said the Democrats have staked out a position at odds with what’s best for average workers.
“It’s the abandonment of the American worker. It’s an astounding development for the Democratic Party — the national leaders — to abandon the American worker like this,” Mr. Beck said.
“They’ve done something I didn’t think was possible. They’re going to make Bush seem very moderate and pro-worker,” he said.
Polls show a majority of Americans oppose amnesties, while a plurality would go even further and begin to reduce legal immigration.
But amnesties or “normalization” of illegal immigrants’ status polls well among Hispanics. One poll last month from Raul Damas, a Republican pollster, found that 83 percent of registered Hispanic voters support legalization.
“Immigration has now become a litmus test for Hispanic voters,” Mr. Damas said, who added that kind of support among Hispanics has allowed Democrats to abuse the issue. He said Republicans must counter by putting forth sensible plans that couch immigration reform as a national-security issue.
Thursday’s debate was held in Albuquerque as a nod to New Mexico and neighboring Arizona, both of which have large Hispanic populations and hold early primaries next year. The debate, meant to give Democratic Hispanic voters exposure to the candidates, will be translated into Spanish and telecast on Univision today.
Three of the candidates — Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Mr. Lieberman — spoke some remarks in Spanish, with Mr. Kucinich making the most attempts.
Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, said most of the attempts were “done with humility” and conveyed the message that the candidates weren’t comfortable with the language, but they considered attracting Hispanic voters important enough to emphasize key phrases.
But James Taylor, a Democratic state representative from Albuquerque, told the Albuquerque Journal the Spanish-speaking was pandering.
“It’s meant to placate us,” he told the paper.
Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster who has done extensive work on the Hispanic electorate, said though none of the candidates overdid it, it probably didn’t go over well with Hispanic voters.
“I don’t think it plays very well, especially because the ones that tried didn’t do very well with it,” he said. “I’ve been saying this for the last three years: I don’t think it’s a good idea, unless you speak it well, to try to speak in a language you don’t speak well in. Sometimes, it sounds contrived.”
Several observers said Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lieberman and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida showed the best grasp of issues surrounding immigrants.
Mr. Kerry expressed outrage at the difficulty many immigrants have in sending earnings back to their home countries, and said the government should “be sensible” about the matricula consular identification cards issued by the Mexican government to its citizens, including illegals, living in the United States.
Mr. Graham drew on his experience as former governor of Florida, speaking with expertise about Latin American politics, while Mr. Lieberman advocated changes in due-process safeguards for immigrants.
Mr. Segal said the level of discussion showed some of the candidates had done their homework.
“I was surprised that they reached a level of detail that was so precise as to be talking about the exact number of years it would take for an immigrant worker contributing to the U.S. economy to be reasonably considered for amnesty — either for a long-term worker visa or even citizenship,” he said.
Mr. Dean, who has surged ahead of his rivals in early primary states, was less specific, addressing immigration as part of a broader civil rights issue.
“The problem here is immigration is a hot topic because people like the president use code words like ‘quotas’ to try to frighten people into thinking they’re going to lose their jobs to somebody who’s a member of the minority community,” he said.