It’s too little to address the underlying causes of the United States’s lingering immigration crisis. And it’s probably too late to save his campaign from a polling deficit better measured in orders of magnitude than digits. But Martin O’Malley’s sudden realization that there are meaningful contrasts to draw between him and the other candidates on immigration may just be enough to rouse the Democrats from their creeping sense of complacency on the issue.
Last Sunday, at a Fair Immigration Reform Movement candidates’ forum in Las Vegas, O’Malley started down the line of attack he’s most likely to pursue in Saturday night’s Democratic debate. He called out Hillary Clinton for working behind the scenes to block a 2007 bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants in New York to apply for driver’s licenses, as then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, an O’Malley backer, has alleged. And he reamed Bernie Sanders for going on Lou Dobbs’s show, also in 2007, and breathing life into fears that immigrants steal jobs from American workers and depress their wages.
Both of his Democratic rivals, O’Malley said, are “very much of yesterday’s mindset” on immigration. And, he added pointedly, “We are not going to solve this problem with poll-tested triangulation and half-truths.”
On Thursday, O’Malley went beyond the rhetoric, becoming the first presidential hopeful to accept the #DAPAdinner initiative’s open invitation encouraging candidates to break bread—or, in this case, chilaquiles and frijoles—with partially undocumented immigrant families. Manuel Ramírez and Adriana Campos, the undocumented parents of an American citizen, Abigail, whom he met with in Austin, Texas, are among the roughly 4.9 million people who would be eligible to apply for legal status thanks to deferred action parental accountability (DAPA) and other aspects of President Obama’s disputed executive order—which all three Democrats support, but only O’Malley has elaborated upon convincingly. After lunch with the Ramírez family, O’Malley went on a Texas radio program and hounded Clinton for her recent use of the term “illegal immigrants” at a town hall in New Hampshire. “Before one audience, she will talk about immigration reform and the need for it,” said O’Malley. “Before another audience, she’ll use the term ‘illegal immigrants’ and boast about having voted to build a wall and barbed-wire fence.”
It helps that O’Malley has a credible record to run on. As governor of Maryland, he championed (albeit a bit belatedly) the state’s DREAM act, which extended in-state college tuition to undocumented students, and signed a bill similar to the one Clinton allegedly stalled, allowing eligible “new American immigrants,” as he prefers to call them, to get driver’s licenses. In conjunction with the U.S. Attorney General’s office, he also limited Maryland law enforcement’s mandate to enforce federal immigration statutes.
Perhaps because of this governing experience, O’Malley is the only Democratic candidate who has outlined a viable strategy to move forward on an issue that promises to be met with nothing but committed obstructionism by the Republican-controlled Congress. Clinton and Sanders have both pledged to defend Obama’s executive orders and take steps to expand them if necessary, but they haven’t spelled out what those steps would be. That leaves the empty promise of a comprehensive reform bill looming large in their platforms. O’Malley, on the other hand, has laid out a resourceful array of precise measures he would implement to extend health care to undocumented immigrants, to limit detentions, and to expedite residency applications.
The timing of O’Malley’s push on immigration, however, may be more significant than its substance. After the nativist theater the Republicans performed in their own debate Tuesday, the path of least resistance for Clinton and Sanders would have been to position themselves as simply “not that.” If all O’Malley accomplishes, in whatever’s left of his non-starter of a candidacy, is to shame his fellow Democrats into offering a real answer to the cynicism and simmering hatred they can expect to face on the right, then he will have done a valuable service to his country as well as his party. The people whose lives hang in the balance deserve better than to watch would-be presidents haggle over the political utility of rounding them up at gunpoint.