What Happened To Illegal Immigration As An Issue? : The Visible Man A hot topic a year ago, illegal immigration seems to have fallen off the national radar as the focus turns to the distressed economy. Barack Obama enjoys a wide advantage among Hispanic voters. And John McCain can't afford to alienate anyone else ...
NPR logo What Happened To Illegal Immigration As An Issue?

What Happened To Illegal Immigration As An Issue?

Illegal immigrants vs. undocumented workers. Guest workers' visas. Border security. Minutemen. Those were the buzz words of the illegal immigration debate as the House and Senate wrangled a reform bill and tens of thousands of people spilled out into the streets to voice their opinions on it. The debate was passionate, tough and seemingly unending.

Barely a year later, and any talk of immigration reform has seemingly ended. In Wednesday night's final presidential debate, the word "immigration" was used only once — separate from the word "illegal" — and it was a reference by John McCain to a perceived distortion within a Barack Obama campaign ad.

There are a few reasons illegal immigration as an issue has fallen off the national radar.

Certainly the tanking economy has taken center stage. But wasn't illegal immigration tied to the economy? Weren't "those people" either dragging us down as leeches on social programs or engines of domestic growth by doing the jobs that Americans wouldn't do? Surly the issue was important enough then that it should be put into some kind of perspective now.

Also, McCain joined with Sen. Ted Kennedy to sponsor the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform act. Or was it the amnesty bill? Whichever, it was a bill Barack Obama voted in support of. It's already hard enough for McCain to differentiate himself from Obama, what with McCain adopting the cloak of "change." Underscoring yet again where he agrees with Obama does McCain no good.

And, too, the Hispanic vote is shaping up to be the game changer — the buzzword of '08 — in this presidential election. Hispanic voters could make the difference in swings states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and even North Carolina — a fact McCain must be very mindful of.

When McCain co-sponsored the bill with Kennedy, he alienated fellow Republicans. After the bill failed to pass in the House and he flip-flopped back into a more conservative stance, McCain alienated Hispanics. Obama enjoys a wide advantage among Hispanic voters. McCain can't afford to alienate anyone else by substantively talking about illegal immigration.

Which is unfortunate. Though illegal immigration has actually decreased slightly as our economy has worsened, immigration reform remains an important issue. Despite both candidates supporting the Kennedy bill, there are differences of approach between McCain and Obama that should be discussed.

The electorate deserves talk on the issue. Clearly that's not going to happen until after Nov. 4.