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Republican And Democratic Immigration Platforms And Policies: A Timely Look Before The Upcoming Election

by Steven Thal and Kirsten Gullixson

The current financial crisis has dominated media headlines and the political debates between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, though they have been fairly quiet on the immigration issue along the campaign trail. The immigration system has been in need of reform for many years, but things have yet to change, since it always seems to take a back burner to other issues. Many immigrants and their families continue to wait patiently for reform. The platforms adopted at the Republican and Democratic Party National Conventions are very informative about the stance of the members of these parties. Of course, we can also gather the position of the candidates themselves based on their earlier voting records and statements. The political party platforms show divergent approaches to immigration and measures for reform, but the candidates themselves show some common positions on certain issues.

The Republican Party Platform

For Republicans, the approach to immigration policy is fairly straightforward: Secure the border because immigration is a national security issue. Republicans look to border problems (terrorism, crime, and drugs), and they focus on the need to track whoever enters or leaves the United States because not knowing who is coming or going poses a grave security risk to the nation. Republicans note that a border fence between the United States and Mexico would help the border agents secure the national borders. Republicans also promote strict enforcement against illegal workers and lawbreaking employers alike with more raids at workplaces (looking for fake documents, visa overstays or employment authorization document expirations). Republicans oppose driver's licenses, in-state tuition, and social security or other public benefits for undocumented immigrants, and proposes denying federal funding to certain cities that are sanctuaries for undocumented workers. Moreover, even though the Republican President Ronald Reagan was famous for passing amnesty and current Republican President Bush has long supported a path to legalization, the Republican Party Platform states emphatically in three words: "We oppose amnesty." Republicans note that amnesty or legalization amounts to rewarding illegal activity, and notes that it is especially problematic given the past failures of the federal government to enforce the law. Republicans find that it is a national disgrace that the first experience most new Americans have is with a dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy defined by delay and confusion. Republicans define the importance of all to embrace core values of liberty, equality, meritocracy, and respect for human dignity, and the rights of women, and promote English as an official language, since it is the accepted language of business, commerce, and legal proceedings, and it is essential as a unifying cultural force. Republicans make a special mention that the US welcomes refugees, but opposes granting of refugee status on the basis of "lifestyle" or other non-political factors. The Republican Party platform is a hard-line, enforcement-based approach. Republicans want a fence first and foremost and before they do anything else, they do not support any form of amnesty or other relief to undocumented immigrants.

The McCain-Palin Approach
McCain and Palin support the following policies:

  1. Finishing securing the borders in an expedited manner first (this fully meshes with the Republican Party Platform);
  2. Prosecuting "bad actor" employers, implementing real-time new employment verification systems to screen workers for hiring eligibility, and addressing issues of social security number misuse; and
  3. Creating a temporary worker program for both highly-skilled workers and low-skilled workers (agricultural and non-agricultural), while protecting U.S. workers' employment opportunities;
  4. "Addressing the undocumented" by allowing them to enroll in a program to change their status, thereby keeping families together and avoiding creating a "permanent second class" (McCain has fought hard to try to convince Conservatives that legalization or a pathway to citizenship is not "amnesty," since the undocumented immigrants would need to wait at the end of the line, learn English, pay back taxes and fines, and pass a citizenship course, but despite the careful use of language, this program still amounts to a pathway to citizenship); and
  5. Reducing backlogs in the family categories, sometimes as long as 20 years.

The Democratic Party Platform

Democrats, on the other hand, see immigration policy as an opportunity to renew the American Community, noting that America has always been a nation of immigrants, a place where you can make it if you try. Democrats commit to fixing the broken immigration system within the first year of the administration with a comprehensive immigration reform (not a piecemeal approach) that focuses on uniting rather than dividing. Although the Democrats also recognize the need to secure the borders, Democrats make no mention of the controversial border fence, but rather turn their focus on additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology. Democrats push to fix the "broken" immigration bureaucracy, noting that the nation currently enforces the laws against the immigrants themselves, rather than the employers (raids tear apart families and leave people detained without adequate access to counsel) and that the US needs to step up enforcement against employers. Democrats want to improve the legal immigration system, noting the importance of both keeping families together (a cornerstone of immigration policy for years, but hampered by the dysfunctional bureaucracy lately) as well as supporting American businesses. They propose to increase the number of immigration visas for family members of people living here and for immigrants who meet the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill, as long as appropriate labor market protections and standards are in place. Democrats propose facilitating the process for those who are lawful permanent residents who want to complete their journey to citizenship. Democrats seek to fight discrimination against Americans who have always played by the country's immigration rules but are sometimes treated as if they had not. Democrats support a path for undocumented immigrants to become legal permanent residents, or in their words to "get right" with the law, through a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to "come out of the shadows," pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens. In keeping with the American community idea, Democrats describe the millions of people living here illegally but otherwise abiding by the law as our neighbors, who need assistance in becoming full tax-paying, law-abiding, productive members of society. The Democratic approach is a softer policy that focuses on the need for comprehensive reform, focusing on the importance of keeping families together and recognizing the needs of millions of undocumented aliens who are here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules. The Democratic approach is less about enforcement on the individual worker (that tears a family apart), and more about sanctions on the employer. They note the importance of border security, without ever saying the word "fence."

The Obama-Biden Approach
Obama and Biden support the following policies:

  1. Securing the nation's borders with additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at the nation's ports of entry (Obama and Biden both supported the border fence bill, while Biden's support may have been more to reduce drug trafficking than illegal entry, in any case, the Democratic Party Platform did not address this issue, they have since toned down support of the physical barrier, since it is unpopular in border towns);
  2. Fixing the "dysfunctional" and "broken" immigration bureaucracy (reducing immigration fees and lengthy background checks) and increasing the number of legal immigrants in order to keep families together and meet the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill;
  3. Cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants (removing the incentives to employers who hire), and supporting an employment eligibility verification system, noting that the raids place the burden on the worker who is just trying to support a family and put great financial pressures on the country's system, and raids without employer sanctions encourage employers to go out and hire a "new batch" of workers;
  4. Creating a "pathway to citizenship" by allowing undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens, with Obama noting that shipping back 12 million undocumented persons is just "not practical"; and
  5. Promoting economic development in Mexico to decrease illegal immigration.

Republicans and Democrats take different approaches on the subject of immigration. The Republican Party Platform supports border security and employment enforcement, but not amnesty or legalization, while McCain himself supports a pathway to citizenship, which he carefully terms as "addressing the undocumented." The Democratic Party Platform supports comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship, but remained silent on the border fence, while Obama and Biden both initially supported the border fence and additional security, while remaining fairly quiet on the subject today. On these issues where the candidates adopt a stance different from their respective party's stance, the candidates actually meet. They also meet on employment eligibility verification and enforcement against employers, but Obama thinks that enforcement against the undocumented workers themselves is expensive and ineffective when the employer has no sanctions and can just go out and hire a new batch of workers ready to take the places of the deported workers. The candidates all seem to agree on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, while McCain's earlier ardent support of the comprehensive immigration reform bill waned when seeking the Republican Party nomination.

No matter what the outcome of the election, it will affect us all, since it will determine the fate of many immigrants, their families, and their employers. Nevertheless, little will be likely to happen very soon after the candidate takes office, despite the campaign promises of McCain saying it would be a top priority within the first 100 days and Obama saying it would be one of his priorities on his first day. Immigration is such a hot-button issue that many have compared it to a downed power line, electrocuting anyone who touches it. One thing is for sure, the issue of immigration will not go away. Whether it gets addressed sooner or later, the immigration system remains desperately in need of reform, and so one hopes that no matter who is elected, it will gain the necessary attention it deserves. U.S. citizens voting in this election have an important choice to make, and the outcome will direct the course of policy in years to come.


GOP Platform

McCain Website

Democratic Platform

Obama Website

About The Author

Steven C. Thal is an attorney practicing immigration law in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He is a 1982 graduate cum laude of the University of Minnesota Law School. Prior to law school he spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, South America. Mr. Thal holds an "A-V" rating from Martindale-Hubbell and is listed in their Directory of Preeminent Lawyers. Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Monthly have recognized him as a "Super Lawyer" in immigration law. He has received the AILA National Presidential Commendation for "creative and tireless advocacy" on behalf of immigrants. He is an Emeritus Trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation. He has spoken and written for various immigration law seminars.

Kirsten Gullixson received her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2000. She received her Bachelorís degree with distinction in International Relations, Chinese, and East Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1993. She also received Masterís degrees in Taiwan and in France. She is an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Prior to joining the Law Office of Steven C. Thal, she worked at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong, and with a California firm. Kirsten has a wide range of experience in individual and employment-based immigration (including H-1Bs, H-2B, PERM labor certification applications, TNs, and L-1 visas) for established companies and start-ups. Kirsten has lived in various locations in Asia (including China) for several years, and she speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese. She also speaks French and Spanish.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.