The Presidential Immigration Divide
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Republican Senator Arlen Specter describes immigration as the third rail of American politics. Politicians may not want to touch it, but polls show a majority of voters do want comprehensive immigration reform.
Jim Vandehei is executive editor at politico.com. He joins me now from the border of D.C. and Virginia, the city of Arlington. Welcome to the program, Jim.
Mr. JIM VENDEHEI (Politico.com): Great to be here.
BRAND: Well, let's start with the Republicans. What are the frontrunners saying about immigration now?
Mr. VENDEHEI: Well, virtually every Republican is saying the same thing now. They're saying let's tighten down the borders, let's make sure that we can keep the border strong enough where you don't have more illegal immigrants coming in here, and under no circumstances should we grant them anything that resembles amnesty. And if you look at polling in Iowa, where you wouldn't think immigration would be that big of an issue, it is by far and away one of the biggest issues motivating Republican voters right now.
BRAND: And what about Democratic voters? Do they care about it as much?
Mr. VANDEHEI: They don't. Democrats tend to care a lot more about the war and health care. Immigration's much further down on that list. But it's still tricky because there's a lot of sort of conservative Democrats who want to vote Democratic, but are very concerned about what Democrats will do on immigration.
That's why you saw such an uproar when Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that in fact illegal immigrants should be allowed to get drivers license. It was a big issue up in New York. It's actually had been an issue in other states. She was forced, you know, within two weeks to completely switch her position and say that she's opposed to the idea, mostly because there are Democrats - swing Democrats - who don't want to hear that. They feel like, you know what? You're talking about rewarding illegal behavior.
And so you see politicians, even Democratic politicians, being much more careful about how they talk about the issue. And they're also keeping in mind, especially someone like Hillary Clinton, what's going to happen in the general election. Immigration is a big issue with independents and conservatives. And so Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to talk about it in a way that does not offend swing voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, in Iowa, and other places where you just won't think it's a huge issue, but it is.
BRAND: But you know, then you've got swing states like Nevada, which have a large, large Hispanic population. So Democrats really are in a bit of a bind here.
Mr. VANDEHEI: It's true. And that Hispanic population, broadly speaking, and it's tough to generalize with these different groups, but broadly speaking they don't want to hear anti-immigration rhetoric. They don't want to hear anything that sounds like people are speaking in a bad tone about Hispanics. So you have to really balance it out.
BRAND: Jim, you mentioned the drivers license issue. It was a big part of the debate last week. I was actually there in Nevada and spoke to a voter afterwards who was following it very closely. His name is Vernon Keraway(ph). And he had been a Barack Obama supporter, and then Obama came out during that debate in favor of granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.
(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)
BRAND: So when Barack Obama says yes, he would grant them driver's licenses, was that - did you think, hmm?
VERNON KERAWAY: That was kind of a, well, you know, I'm not too sure, you know, about some of the ideas that you have and the direction that you want to lead us into.
BRAND: That's voter Vernon Keraway in Las Vegas, Nevada. Jim VandeHei of Politico.com, doesn't that kind of encapsulate a problem with the Democratic Party? You've got on the one hand an African-American base and you've got a Hispanic base on the other hand, and Democrats want both.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Barack Obama's answer to that question shows how vexing it is for Democrats. He sort of stumbled and he weaved and he meandered and he finally, at the end of the day, said yeah, I do support it.
I mean the problem with immigration is it's complicated and it's so ripe for demagoguery because every time you take one piece of that, it's so easy for critics to say you're rewarding illegal behavior. That's powerful, you know? It reminds me a lot of welfare reform. When people felt like people who were receiving welfare were getting too many benefits from the government. It reminds me a lot of affirmative action, when a lot of white Democrats, conservative Democrats, starting to move away from the Democratic Party because they felt like the Democratic Party was just - was too liberal on that issue.
BRAND: Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.com. Thanks a lot.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Thanks for having me.
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