The stumbling and ducking and dodging accompanying the Democratic presidential candidates’ attempts to deal with the question of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants a couple of debates ago hinted at a real problem one of them is likely to face in next year’s general election campaign.
Over the course of the last few years, Democrats have enjoyed the luxury of sitting back while Republicans were forced to deal with the increasingly volatile immigration issue. The Tom Tancredos and John McCains each had their supporters, but no one, including an increasingly exasperated George Bush, was able to come up with an answer to the concerns of both sides that had a ghost of a chance of passing public muster. Before immigration reform was taken off the table, Republicans were at each other’s throats and hoping the issue might just go away.
Well, it won’t. In fact, public concern about the federal government’s apparent inability to control the nation’s borders or deal in any meaningful way with an increasing flood of illegal immigrants has people fighting mad, and while many of them might not like the way Republicans have fared in dealing with it, they’re likely to be even more upset as they focus on the Democrats.
The Democrats’ problem is that for ideological and practical political reasons, they are hamstrung in dealing with public concerns about the border, amnesty, the availability of public services for illegals and, most important, assimilation. Some newly elected “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House are trying desperately to find a way out of the corner into which they have painted themselves, but are learning that it is going to be difficult to find one.
This difficulty was highlighted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to indefinitely postpone conference committee action on this year’s Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill until the conferees agree to eliminate language that passed both houses allowing private employers to require their employees to conduct their business in English if they so choose.
She and her fellow Democrats have stripped the language from the bill and insist that the conference will not be allowed to proceed until its sponsor agrees to this.
That isn’t likely to happen .The language was proposed by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee in the Senate and received the support of a majority of his colleagues. Over in the House, a majority voted to actually instruct the House conferees to include the language in the appropriations measure. Alexander introduced his amendment in response to a decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) back in March to sue the Salvation Army in Boston for requiring those working in its store there to speak English.
Alexander, who takes assimilation seriously, was offended by a decision that could make it impossible for small or large businesses to require that their employees speak English without going to the EEOC for permission.
In reacting to the Democratic leadership’s action, Alexander said, “Our unity (as a nation) is based upon learning a common language, English, so we can speak to one another, live together more easily, and do business with one another. We have spent the last 40 years … celebrating diversity at the expense of unity … we need to spend the next several years working hard to build more unity from our magnificent diversity.”
Few Americans, but almost all Democratic leaders given a choice, will, like the House Speaker, opt for diversity every time — regardless of whether it might result in the political and cultural balkanization that could threaten the very polity they represent. Whether this is based in ideology or pressure from interest groups is less relevant than that it exists.
Alexander, for his part, believes unity is important and that one way to further it is via a common national language. His belief in this has led him to support assistance for immigrants seeking citizenship in learning English as well as in acquiring a meaningful understanding of the nation of which they will become a part.
His experience with something as simple as the amendment Speaker Pelosi wants killed, however, should tell him, the Blue Dogs looking for a middle way and the rest of us that she and her fellow Democratic leaders are not likely to bend on issues that are becoming more important and defining by the day.
One can only wonder how the Democratic presidential nominees would react to being asked how they feel about the Alexander proposal and what they think of Speaker Pelosi’s drive to kill it.