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Achieving Healthy Immigration Reform

New America Media, Commentary, David Coates Posted: Aug 22, 2009

There are times when campaigning for one thing is best done by campaigning for something else as well. This is one of those times, when those of us supporting immigration reform need also to campaign vigorously for something entirely different, namely affordable health care for all Americans.

Why? Because the great barrier to a successful reform of our immigration system in 2010 is not Obama backsliding. It is an emboldened and mobilized conservative base in 2009. It was the base that broke bipartisanship on immigration reform during the second Bush term. It was the base that led the charge against the Obama stimulus package. It is the base that is now trying to howl down the advocates of health care reform.

If conservative extremists succeed in blocking or gutting the health care bills now working their way through Congress, they will go on to block immigration reform. And they will no doubt do it by using their current tactics deceit, scaremongering, the disruption of meetings, the funding of ultra-conservative candidates, even the implicit threat of violence tactics that any orchestrated right-wing grass roots defeat of healthcare reform will have vindicated.

There is more at stake right now than immigration reform or even health care reform. What is at stake is the capacity of the American political system to deliver the progressive program for which a majority of the electorate voted last November. The potency of the ballot box itself is currently under challenge and must be defended.

Progressives everywhere need, therefore, to design their fall campaigning appropriately: to parallel and negate the conservative counter-insurgency now being mobilized against the Obama administration. Fighting deceit with facts and disruption with argument, the key task is one of putting steel in the spine of liberal policymakers as they work through the reform agenda: healthcare legislation first, energy conservation second, and then onto immigration reform.

The way you advance progressive causes, the great liberal academic R.H. Tawney once told the British Labor Party, is not to dodge the opposition by compromising principles or promising that it will be smooth. Support won by such methods is a reed shaken by every wind, he said. Rather, Tawney argued, you must explain your case with complete openness and candor, the better to mobilize behind you a body of conviction as resolute and as informed as the opposition you face.

Dont encourage your supporters, he said, to ask what they will get from you, as though a campaign were a picnic, all beer and sunshine. Instead, make them understand that your return to power is just the first phase of a struggle, the outcome of which depends on them.

Well, we are in that struggle now, and the outcome does indeed depend on us. Jim DeMint knows it. He knows that if he can stop Obama on health care, he can stop him for good. That must not happen; and it will not, if enough of us remember that, given the opposition we face, winning on the immigration front requires first that we win big on health.

David Coates is the Worrell Professor of Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He is the co-editor (with Peter Siavelis) of Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know (Potomac Books 2009) and the author of the forthcoming Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (Continuum Books)

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