In New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, the questions about immigration arise repeatedly — and Democratic presidential candidates say they know they are alienating some of their strongest supporters by calling for legalization of illegal aliens.
“It’s a bad vote. It loses you votes. I’ve never found anybody that won on immigration,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said this month at a town hall forum at New England College.
The issue has received far more attention among Republicans, but Democratic presidential candidates are facing the same polarizing questions.
While some of the top Republican candidates have begun to change their positions to appeal to conservative voters, Democratic candidates remain firmly behind legalization of most illegal aliens. Still, they are almost apologetic as they make their pitches.
“You can be in front of a very, very rabid Democratic crowd, and there will be a lot of people in the room who do not agree with what I just said,” former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said earlier this month in a speech at the University of New Hampshire as he defended his support for legalization. “The very same people … are strongly against the war and strongly for universal health care. So there is nowhere close to unanimity among Democrats about this issue.”
But all of them support allowing illegal aliens to gain legal status and eventually be eligible for citizenship if they pay back taxes, pay a fine and pass a background check. They also support a proposed guest-worker program that would allow foreign workers to come to the United States and take a path to citizenship. All of them couple that with calls for more border security, and some of them stress the need to crack down on employers as well.
Advisers to several candidates said privately that Mr. Richardson is in a good position to attack the other candidates on their support of building more fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who are running for the Democratic presidential nomination, voted last year for the Secure Fence Act, which sponsors say mandates 854 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Hispanic and immigrant rights groups argue that the proposed fencing is insulting and probably ineffective.
Mr. Richardson ridicules the idea. “I would not have this stupid wall between Mexico and the United States,” he said.
Richardson campaign spokesman Pahl Shipley said the governor will let his immigration positions be known, but will not use the issue “for meaningless partisan political rhetoric.” He said Mr. Richardson instead will talk about what he supports: increasing the U.S. Border Patrol force, adding technology and working with Mexico.
“He believes the majority of Americans agree with that position and don’t believe that building a fence is the right thing to do. It will not work, and it sends the wrong message — an un-American message,” Mr. Shipley said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, has been on both sides of the fence issue. He voted against a Senate amendment that would have required a total of 370 miles of border fence and another 500 miles of vehicle barriers, but later voted for the Secure Fence Act.
The Democrats are careful to emphasize that their approaches do not amount to amnesty because they propose fines and other penalties for illegal aliens applying for green cards and require a lawful permanent residence as a steppingstone to citizenship.
Democrats receive some of the strongest applause when they announce that they support English skills as a requirement for legalization.
“I think they ought to learn to speak English,” Mr. Edwards said, drawing appreciation from the crowd at the University of New Hampshire.
Former Vice President Al Gore, who has said he is not running in 2008, may have the best chance to capture voters who favor increased restrictions.
Americans for Better Immigration, which opposes legalization of aliens, graded Mr. Gore an A-minus for his votes in Congress. The group gave a D to both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama, and graded Mrs. Clinton a D-minus.
Democrats may be more united because the issue doesn’t affect their voters the same way as it does Republicans.
A University of Iowa poll of likely Republican caucus-goers found that 63 percent rated immigration a “very important” issue, compared with 38 percent of likely Democrat caucus-goers. The poll of 1,290 Iowans — including 298 likely Democratic caucus-goers and 178 likely Republican caucus-goers — was conducted March 19 to 31. The margin of error was 5.5 percent for Democrats and 6.5 percent for Republicans.
Still, some politicians say Republicans are reading the issue the wrong way.
Among both Republicans and Democrats, more than half of likely caucus-goers said they supported allowing “undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain criteria like learning English and paying back taxes.”