Littwin: Bold on immigration reform! (It doesn’t take much)

YOU COULD feel the ground shift the other day, and for once it had nothing to do with fracking. This was Hillary Clinton shaking up the presidential race by going bold — really bold — on immigration reform, to the surprise of nearly everyone, particularly immigration-rights activists.

Her move to make immigration reform a centerpiece of her presidential campaign this early in the race was so surprising that, according to a story in the Washington Post, most of the dozens of Republicans running for president were struck dumb. (Actually the Post said “left … speechless,” but you get the idea.)

If you missed it, Clinton backed Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration and said that — if she were elected and Congress didn’t respond by passing a bill — she would go even further. She said that detainees, meanwhile, must be treated more humanely. She said that anyone who supported anything less than a path to full citizenship (note to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both caught in mid-wobble) actually supported “second-class status.”

[pullquote]Republicans will keep talking about ‘amnesty.’ Clinton will like that. She’ll be talking about a ‘path to citizenship.'[/pullquote]

Clinton was all in, which leads us to at least two questions:

When did the famously cautious Clinton grow so bold?

Or has immigration reform reached the point as an issue that you can afford to look like you’re bold on reform without actually being bold at all?

I think the answer to the second question — which also answers the first — is yes, mostly. It’s no secret that Democrats have to win the growing Latino vote by a large margin to win the presidency. This is part of the Emerging Democratic Majority everyone was so certain about before the 2014 Midterm Shellacking II. Way back in 2012, Obama drew 71 percent of the Latino vote against Mitt Romney, whose “self-deport” policy cost him Latino votes and Asian-Pacific votes and basically any other available minority votes.

But it’s also no secret that Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush, with his Mexican-born wife and his Latino check-off, could attract Latino votes. Or that Spanish-speaking Marco Rubio, whose parents were Cuban immigrants and who once strongly supported the Senate-passed immigration-reform bill (but has since backed away), could attract Latino votes.

There’s no risk for Clinton on immigration in the Democratic primary, where any small risk is from those taking positions to her left.

But more to the point, this inserts her directly into the Republican primary where “reform” is called “amnesty” and where the answer to every question about the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows eventually leads to “we can’t do anything else until we secure the border.”

The secure-the-border line would be funny if weren’t so, well, unfunny. It doesn’t matter how secure the border is, after all. It doesn’t matter how many more agents there are on the border now. It doesn’t matter that immigration has slowed significantly. It doesn’t matter that we seemed to have survived the children’s invasion. It doesn’t matter that ISIS doesn’t seem to have actually set up shop on the border. (Hell, in Texas, they think the U.S. Army — apparently preparing to set up martial law — is the real danger.) It doesn’t matter that diseases aren’t flowing across the border or that the anti-vaxxers wouldn’t want to vaccinate against them even if they were.

What matters is that it’s a convenient way to say that first you have to secure the border because there is no securing the border, which puts off a decision for approximately forever.

But what will happen in the upcoming GOP debates — and who can wait for those? — is that Ted Cruz and others will go after Bush and Rubio for being squishy on illegal immigration, and that to win the nomination in a party that is a strongly anti-amnesty party, Bush and Rubio will have to be very careful. Bush will talk about “earned legal status.” Rubio was a prime mover in the Senate immigration bill, meaning he was once for a path to citizenship, but now he’s more in the path to something not quite clear, but only after, you know, the border.

What Clinton wants to make clear is that the immigration-reform supporters in the Republican party are talking about “second-class status,” while she’s talking about the real thing.

“Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship — not one,” Clinton said. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status.”


Well, yes and no. It’s no coincidence that Clinton was making headlines at the same time the anti-Clinton book “Clinton Cash” was making headlines of its own. And the polls are all over the place on this thing. They’re against Obama’s executive orders in the same way they were against the Obama czars, who have somehow either disappeared or were deposed when no one was looking. But the polls basically show that most voters are for reform and even for eventual citizenship.

Republicans had the chance, of course, to make this issue go away. Last summer, the House refused to vote on a reform bill that featured strong border enforcement, that would have meant a 13-year path to citizenship, that would have caused millions of people to jump through hoops for the entertainment of the House majority. Instead, they chose to ignore making any progress with minorities in order to be able to keep saying “amnesty.”

And now, much to their surprise, Clinton is inviting speechless Republican candidates to say it as boldly as they like.

Photo by Marc Nozell.