Does Hillary Clinton think anyone in the world has a right to come to America?
The answer could throw another monkey wrench into a presidential campaign that's already twisted far out of its predicted shape. And decent, sensible immigration politics could be the victim.
Suitably enough, the momentous question — likely to appear in some form as Clinton debates Donald Trump before a disillusioned but attentive TV audience — arose from a campaign controversy on Twitter.
After Trump intoned in a recent speech that "no one has the right to immigrate to this country," Clinton's Ohio operation tweeted out a simple rejoinder — "We disagree" — that drew a same-day retweet from Clinton's own staffer-run account.
For some Clinton critics, as well as some Trump critics who aren't hot on Clinton either, the tit-for-tat unintentionally summed up the way America's policy debates have kept us so often on the wrong track.
Although Trump supporters, following their candidate's lead, often take their cue more from abstract principles of nationalism than the particulars of the Constitution, in this case they'd agree with the constitutionalists that a blanket right to immigration — legal or otherwise — is absent from the U.S. political tradition.
One reason elites today are in so much political trouble, however, has to do with their relatively casual attitude toward a lack of border enforcement.
But that's hardly the end of the story. Some Americans, mainly on the right, insist that border enforcement plus deportation is the only way to remedy what the elites let slide. And some on the left go far in the other direction, hoping to extend more and more benefits once reserved to citizens to unlawful immigrants. After all, if the good of what our government and people created is some kind of human right, why should one's citizenship status get in the way of accessing that good? Clinton should be reasonably expected to clarify exactly where on that spectrum of judgment she comes down.
And, in a reasonable world, Americans would anticipate a middle-of-the-road answer from Clinton — quite similar to what much of the field of losing Republican candidates offered: beefed-up border security plus a "pathway out of the shadows" and toward citizenship, with deportation for undocumented folks running around committing crimes. In fact, as many observers have noted, that's more or less the mix of policies that Barack Obama has overseen as president.
Even Trump himself has moved away from his more outlandish and impracticable claims around vast walls and mass deportations.
In a reasonable world, we'd recognize that the immigration consensus, even if it's too sloppy about ensuring that standing law is enforced and enforceable, really is broadly held. Instead of working to build legitimacy through smart reforms that can be swiftly implemented, our leaders have given in to the political temptation to demagogue their rivals and adversaries.
Nailing down Clinton on her immigration stance shouldn't only be about election-season points scoring. It should be part of a shared effort to come clean about just how closely aligned so many of us are on what's complex and simple about where we need to get on immigration law.
In theory, it should be easy to rally around widely welcoming immigration rules that are also well-attuned to economic reality. To restore the trust government needs to implement those laws successfully, our political leaders ought to reject the reigning fantasies at both extremes of the debate — both a world where we've set the clock back to 1992 and a world where nationality is a relic of the bygone past.
Here in the present, we've already got immigration law most of the way there. It'd be a shame to let political posturing ruin our ability to finish the job.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER