Take the case of Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who at a recent town hall meeting told 11-year-old Josie Molina, whose father is being deported, that “we have laws, and we need to follow those laws.” Since then, DesJarlais has been criticized by media, liberal blogs and advocacy groups as being cold and heartless. Yet these parties have not raised a fuss about the cold and heartless Democratic president who is trying to deport the girl’s father.
Or the case of National Republican Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who recently said Mitt Romney’s use of the phrase “self-deportation” during the 2012 presidential campaign was “horrific.” Activists seized on those remarks to bash Republicans. Yet, they turn a blind eye to the real horror – the Obama administration is on track to have deported nearly 2 million people by the year’s end.
This selective outrage isn’t fair to Republicans. But it also isn’t helpful to Democrats. Once they figure out that they don’t have to bring their A-game to the immigration debate, they get lazy.
Activists don’t expect much from them, and so they get little in return. Before long, those on the left forget how to debate the subject in an intelligent manner – or even discuss it in a way that is halfway coherent.
Which brings us to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who recently got tongue-tied at a town hall forum in his home state. Harkin was trying to explain to a roomful of conservatives why he supports the Senate immigration bill.
“I separate out people who came here illegally from people who are criminals,” he said. “Now it’s obvious that they broke laws and did things that were criminal and they shouldn’t. But I’m just saying simply because they came here to work – to provide for their family. They’ve broken no laws other than coming here illegally. They’re here illegally – that’s true. And they need to go through all the hoops we put in the bill. But I just don’t classify them as criminals.”
What a train wreck.
As explanations go, that is taking the long way home. Harkin could have been much clearer and saved half those words by simply pointing out that immigration law is based on civil and not criminal infractions, thus those who violate it can’t be called criminals. That’s why we deport people who enter the country without authorization, and usually don’t send them to prison.
The fact that Harkin couldn’t quite get those words out of his mouth suggests two things – either he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying, or he is uneasy about being seen by fellow Iowans as condoning unlawful activity. Maybe both.
This story matters. It provides valuable insight into something that doesn’t get enough attention in this debate, namely that it’s not just Republicans who struggle with how to talk about immigration. Democrats aren’t experts either.
While Republicans try to cater to pro-business supporters without turning away the nativist faction within the GOP, Democrats have to worry about courting Latinos who want the undocumented treated with fairness and compassion without alienating whites and African-Americans by appearing soft on illegal immigration.
The GOP’s approach to immigration is often so clumsy and so vindictive that it is no wonder it turns off many Latinos.
I get that. What I don’t get is how Democrats continually offer Latinos – and the overall debate – so little, and still manage to receive a pass.
These kinds of low expectations don’t benefit anyone, least of all Democrats.