Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Immigration is a no-win issue for Democrats, which is why Senator Clinton wants to have it both ways
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The Independent Online

Iwas in London last week, when the latest UK immigration row was in full swing. How many foreign workers had entered Britain since 1997? Was it 800,000, 1.1 million, or even 1.5 million? No one seemed to have the faintest notion. I returned to the US to find it consumed in yet another of its own immigration rows. In both countries, the debate is fundamentally the same. Can immigration continue at its current pace without overwhelming public services and, ultimately, changing the nature of the country?

There are differences: in the UK the debate has strong anti-EU and racist undertones, while in the US, immigration raises questions of lost middle-class jobs, border security, and thus the "war on terror" (is a new Mohammed Atta slipping into the country every year, along with the hundreds of thousands of undocumented illegals who come in search of work?). On both sides of the Atlantic though, there is a similar fear – that immigration, legal or otherwise, is out of control.

But what is to be done? Immigration is the great no-win issue of the current presidential campaign.

This is one problem you can't blame on President Bush. He strongly backed the comprehensive reform bill that collapsed in Congress this summer. It would have combined tougher measures to prevent illegal immigration with a path to citizenship for millions already here without papers. Alas, the anti-immigration crowd screamed "amnesty", and the measure failed.

The repercussions have been evident in the presidential race. On the Republican side, one big reason for John McCain's unexpectedly poor showing (apart from his support for the Iraq war) has been his championing of immigration reform. But even for Democrats it's not so easy. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

I arrived back in Washington the day after the latest Democratic candidates' debate. Not surprisingly, it was a pile-on against Hillary. She is the runaway leader in the polls, and if her rivals are going to do anything about that, they'd better hurry: the Iowa caucuses that kick off the primary season have just been moved forward to 3 January.

For a long while she seemed to weather the storm, despite some slippery replies to questions on Iran (where she gives the impression, as usual, of wanting to have it both ways) and on why her husband has put a hold on the release by the National Archives of documents pertaining to her White House role as First Lady.

But just before the end of the discussion she was caught out on a question about immigration. Did she agree with the proposal of Eliot Spitzer, the Governor of New York, to issue driving licences to illegal immigrants? A few days earlier, she had said the idea made sense, and initially defended it during the debate. But a few moments later she broke in to add that even so, "I did not say it should be done".

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who is running a distant third in the Democratic race, pounced. "Unless I missed something," he said, "Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." Hillary had been nailed doing precisely what makes uneasy even those well disposed to her candidacy: equivocating and hedging her bets on an issue, trying to please everybody at once.

Will the slip derail her candidacy? Almost certainly not. Within hours she had moved into damage-control mode. Moreover, the debates (we've had more than a dozen already) attract only small TV audiences. But it showed just how tricky the immigration issue is for Democrats.

For Republicans, things are pretty clear: no one loses votes for being too hawkish on immigrants. For Democrats the issue gets complicated. Americans, according to a USA Today Gallup poll last week, are more upset about the way the country is going than at any time in a generation – and one reason is the government's inability to control immigration.

If the Democrats are to win back the White House, they must do well among independent voters. Yet asked in a separate survey what most alarmed them, 40 per cent picked illegal immigration, far more than those who said they were most concerned over the lack of guaranteed health care or the mess in Iraq. Add to that the hostility to illegal immigrants among many blacks, a bedrock Democratic constituency, and you see why Hillary and the rest cannot sound too soft on the issue.

But the Democrats must tread with care. Hispanics have overtaken blacks as the second-largest population group, and are fast becoming a bedrock Democratic constituency in their own right – and perhaps key to victory in fast-growing south-western states that have traditionally voted Republican. The worry among Hispanics is not so much over the plight of illegal immigrants (though they have much sympathy for them) as that the anti-immigrant campaign might spill over against those who are here legally as well.

In that sense, Hillary Clinton's zigzagging is perfectly understandable. Immigration is the issue on which her party cannot win.