ATLANTA -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's illegal immigration dilemma has drawn widespread attention since a Democratic debate in Philadelphia last month. By waffling on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, she opened a contentious conversation that she and her rivals had been trying to avoid.
Some consultants, fearing a backlash, have cautioned Democrats against speaking out on behalf of illegal immigrants, suggesting a blurred stance less easily dismissed as "amnesty."
They know that many voters - even Democrats and independents - are uneasy about the huge number of illegal immigrants, estimated at 12 million, in this country. They also know that Republicans will prey on that unease and use it as a wedge as they desperately seek a winning issue in an election that looks grim for the GOP.
Still, here's some counterintuitive advice for the Democrats: Do the right thing. Come out clearly and forcefully for putting illegal immigrants already here on a path to citizenship. America is ready for reasoned leadership on this issue.
With a couple of notable exceptions, Republican presidential candidates have made it clear where they stand on illegal immigrants: foursquare against. Faced with a nativist voting base, GOP contenders have chosen to ratchet up the animosity against illegal immigrants rather than tamp down their constituents' hostility. Even former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who once praised illegal workers for the entrepreneurial vibrancy they brought his city, has found his inner know-nothing.
This is typical Republican scapegoating. They've used wedge issues since the 1960s, when they found they could court Southern whites uncomfortable with the civil rights movement by stoking their latent prejudices. They're using a similar strategy to scapegoat foreigners, stoking the fears of Americans beset by globalization, economic dislocation and fear of terrorism.
So let the GOP be the party of fear and division. Democrats ought to stand for something else. The modern Democratic Party also made its choice in the 1960s, choosing hope over fear, tolerance over division and the beloved community over bigotry.
This is no time for Democrats to turn their backs on their civil rights heritage. America is too generous and compassionate to expel millions of productive and otherwise law-abiding people. The nation has taken advantage of their labor for decades, and it would be inhumane (and outrageously expensive) to round them up and send them back.
But Americans also want to be assured that this is the last time a broad legalization option is offered to illegal immigrants. Democrats ought to make it clear that they'll enforce the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegally, a cheaper and more effective strategy for addressing the problem than building fences. After a few CEOs have done the perp walk for illegal hiring, they'll stop offering jobs to those without proper documents. And when word gets across the border that U.S. companies have stopped hiring, those laborers will stop coming. They come for jobs, after all, not jihad.
This is a win-win platform. Not only is it wise and honorable, calling on the highest ideals of a nation of immigrants, it can also produce victories at the ballot box. Last week, Virginia Democrats made gains in state and local elections even though the state has been embroiled in fiery debate over illegal immigration.
Let Republicans take the low road. It won't take them where the rest of the country wants to go.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.