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During the past six months I’ve had an ongoing debate with a childhood friend, now a hedge fund manager in Midtown, over how dominant the issue of illegal immigration will be in next November’s presidential election. Arthur is convinced it’ll rank low among voters’ concerns—way behind national security, Iraq, taxes, health care and the real estate market—and that an elitist media that is mostly in favor of whomever the Democratic candidate is ginning its prominence up. His certainty bewilders me, because we’re in agreement on President Bush’s original immigration reform proposal, which Republicans cowardly scuttled, and also favor Sen. John McCain as the GOP nominee, despite his many flaws, not least his partial capitulation to the Mexican demonizing right-wing base of the party.

As for the bias of influential daily newspapers in favor of a lenient policy, I’d counter that any time The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post agree on a subject it’s worth taking note.

Is it too far-fetched to envision escalating “send them all home” rhetoric from the candidates in coming months—Democrats included—and possibly huge and maybe violent demonstrations in Arizona, Texas and California? I don’t think so, especially if the economy lapses into a mild recession. Right now, Democrats are dodging the illegal immigration question as quickly as possible and who can blame them since Mitt Romney (endorsed by the restrictionist National Review), Mike Huckabee (tapped by the vigilante group The Minutemen) and even Rudy Giuliani are lifting the heavy and ugly banner of bigots like Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan.

Yet in about two months, when the presidential nominees of each party are known, will Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards (as a committed protectionist, he’s already halfway there) make the humane treatment of over 12 million illegals a centerpiece of their campaign? That’s doubtful, regardless of polling that shows Hispanics—who gave Bush 40 percent of their vote in ’04—defecting in droves to the Democrats, which, in theory, could deliver “purple” states like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico to the Democratic column.

It’s telling that Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the House Democratic Caucus chairman and perhaps the savviest, smartest and most pragmatic politician in Congress, is far ahead of the curve on the perils that the illegal immigration imbroglio could pose for his party this November. Speaking to the Washington Post’s columnist E.J. Dionne recently, Emanuel said, “This is a debate in which the rest of the country is left out. This is a values issue: How does a superpower not have control over its border? You have to enforce the rule of law as it relates to the border, and you have to enforce the rule of law as it relates to benefits. Then the American people will be open to resolving the issue as it relates to what industry needs and what immigrant advocates need.”

Translation: Democrats are in danger of giving back some of their ’06 Congressional gains if they don’t get up to speed with the growing sentiment among voters—and not insignificantly for Democrats, a large percentage of African-Americans—that “aliens” are soaking up and draining the coffers of states across the country.

Huckabee, who as governor of Arkansas took a reasonable and benevolent stance on immigration, did a 180 once he vaulted in the polls in Iowa. I doubt the GOP will nominate Huckabee, but it’s not hard to see Romney or Giuliani aping his “Secure America Plan,” which chillingly advocates giving illegal immigrants 120 days to return to their native countries—or else. Even McCain, vilified by social conservatives as shaking hands with the devil—in this case, Ted Kennedy—by supporting a lenient immigration overhaul, has been forced to backtrack and now says he’s learned that voters want the borders “secured” first. At least he has the decency to suggest that illegals are worthy of this country’s “love and compassion” and the recognition “these are God’s children as well.”

I’m not sure if God is paying attention to the 2008 election, but McCain obviously knows that any draconian measures by legislatures or vigilantes will not only rip apart the United States on a social level but devastate the economy as well. After all, it’s his state of Arizona, where a Democratic governor presides, that has passed the most punitive law aimed at undocumented workers. Starting this month, the state will, on first offense of hiring illegals, suspend a company’s business license and on a repeat charge will revoke the license altogether—a “corporate death penalty” as Gov. Janet Napolitano says.
The Times and Washington Post, editorializing in December, were in agreement about the folly of this law, which could be the template for other states, correctly warning about the economic havoc it’ll likely cause. Mind you, both dailies are hardly toadies for commercial businesses, large or small, but this passage from the Times edit is frightening: “The boosters of the Arizona law… have a much narrower goal: the biggest purge of illegal immigrants in the Southwest since the federal government’s Operation Wetback in 1954.”

Last week I received an email from American Apparel—my kids like their hoodies—alerting customers about a pro-immigration ad that it placed in the Times. Unlike Gawker reporter Sheila McClear, who lampooned the company’s intentions—which was kind of funny since Times columnist David Brooks stupidly called Nick Denton’s Internet conglomeration “an information-age sweatshop”—I found it refreshing. I’ve no knowledge of Los Angeles-based American Apparel’s working conditions, but it’s hard to believe they’d broadcast the opinion that immigrants “increase the wealth of the nation” if there were skeletons to hide.

As the year progresses this debate will become more heated and it’d be instructive if other companies, say Starbucks, McDonald’s and Microsoft, followed the lead of American Apparel, if only to show up the gutless politicians trolling for votes.

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