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The Rogue Elephant in the Room

by Robert McMahon, Editor CFR.org
May 24, 2007

If Iraq is the 800-pound gorilla of issues for presidential candidates, immigration is the rogue elephant. Approaching last year’s midterm elections, moderates from both parties retreated from efforts at comprehensive reform in favor of safe “securing-the-border” legislation focused on building a 700-mile fence on the Mexican frontier. They included a number of soon-to-declare presidential candidates, notes this new CFR election issue guide. It’s still not clear what role immigration played in the midterm results.

This year’s proposal for comprehensive immigration package was supposed to be different, with the combined heft of newly in control congressional Democrats and a president eager to secure a legacy. But the latest immigration proposal, which includes a somewhat tortured path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants, runs right up against the launch of the 2008 presidential campaign and its passage is questionable. The candidates are treading very carefully. Senator John McCain is the most exposed, and most insistent, in his support of the proposed reforms. His two leading rivals for the Republican nomination – Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney — have criticized the measures as either inadequate or overly soft on illegal immigrants.

Democrats bidding for the White House, while not soft-pedaling security, sought to make the immigration proposal more family friendly. Senators Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd planned amendments to expand the availability of green cards to close family members. Senator Barack Obama said he would challenge the point system that would favor education and job skills over family ties. John Edwards told CFR.org on Wednesday that the proposed legislation makes a path to citizenship “really difficult for a lot of people to achieve” and would lead to millions of guest-workers “living as second-class people.”

Final action on the bill is due next month. The candidate-lawmakers and others will have a long Memorial Day recess to get a fresh earful from Americans on the matter.

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