Thursday, October 13, 2005

Two things every American should know about Virginia’s governor’s race: It’s the first sizable political contest to turn, largely, on the issue of illegal immigration, and as such, it spotlights the pathetic state of political discourse on the subject.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing pathetic about the position of Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore. He’s the guy I like. I like him simply because he says he wants to enforce the law—for example, the law prohibiting illegal aliens and other non-citizens from voting. He would even like to see the law tightened to become more easily enforceable. I also like him because he says he doesn’t want to break the law — such as laws prohibiting welfare and other benefits from being distributed to illegal aliens.

But this is precisely where the debate becomes pathetic: In the United States, in the year 2005, just trying to help carry out immigration laws already on the books, and just trying not to break them, marks one as a veritable subversive with a program, as The Washington Post hysterically put it, “tinged with nativism and opportunism.” In such a climate, Mr. Kilgore’s support for new legislation to make existing laws more enforceable — for example, legislation that would enable police to detain illegal aliens arrested for violent offenses and turn them over to federal immigration officials — is regarded as rock-the-boat radical. This is not only pathetic, but depressing. A commitment to keep the government functioning according to the laws that make it sovereign should not be political TNT.

But it is. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is as good as it gets when it comes to government strategy — federal, state and local — on policing illegals. By contrast, the prospect of enforcing the law sounds downright revolutionary. That’s because the long political silence on immigration — aside from the legislative efforts of the indomitable Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, hasn’t just been deafening. It’s been demoralizing. Poll after poll indicates a profound uneasiness in the gut of the American public with the culturally transforming pace of immigration, both legal and illegal. But our politicians, particularly our president, have turned their backs on the issue, hoping the taboo topic goes away, sucked deep into the maw of the cheap labor market.

Far from going away, however, the issue has come closer to home. Take what are known as “day laborers” — those bands of job-seeking men, often illegal, who, in pursuit of work, have made a stereotype for themselves as small-time sexual harassers and big-time public urinators. This phenomenon has reached a breakpoint in towns, neighborhoods and Home Depot parking lots across the country. With the failure of the federal government to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, some communities are seeking relief by proposing to administer, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, day-labor recruitment centers where the men and their day-employers can mix and match. But not only do such sites enable illegals to participate in American life, they encourage American citizens to break the law. Which is not a Rockwellian scene any way you paint it.

After the Northern Virginia town of Herndon decided to open such a site, Mr. Kilgore voiced his opposition. “I just don’t think we should be using taxpayer dollars to fund illegal behavior, to promote illegal behavior,” the former Virginiaattorneygeneraltold “I think it says to those illegally in this country and to those wanting to come illegally, ‘We’ll make a place for you if you violate our rules.’ ”

Timothy M. Kaine, Mr. Kilgore’s Democratic opponent, calls this approach “mean-spirited”; Mr. Kaine’s solution, meanwhile, is both to defer to local officials and rely on federal enforcement—which is no solution at all. An independent candidate, H. Russell Potts Jr., calls Mr. Kilgore’s law-and-order position “the worst form of demagoguery.” A Kaine spokesman called it “grandstanding.” Mr. Kilgore had succumbed to “the temptation to fan the flames with a naked appeal for votes,” according to The Washington Post, itself succumbing to the temptation to mix metaphors. The newspaper also dubbed the Kilgore plan to follow the law “populist nonsense,” and “a wedge issue.”

Sounds as if Mr. Kilgore is onto something. Really vital concerns are always “wedge” issues in that they divide the electorate into clear-cut camps from which leaders emerge to govern. That said, this is one weird wedge. Whoever would have imagined that a campaign to enforce the nation’s laws would be considered “mean-spirited” “demagoguery” and “populist nonsense”?

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