PI Original Joshua Hoyt Sunday March 16th, 2008, 7:32pm

JOSHUA HOYT: How The Democrats And The DCCC Finally Got Immigration Right

On March 8, Democrat and scientist Bill Foster shocked the political world by beating Republican dairy and investment millionaire Jim Oberweis in the special election in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. This is a case where the Democratic candidate, the Democratic ...

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On March 8, Democrat and scientist Bill Foster shocked the political world by beating Republican dairy and investment millionaire Jim Oberweis in the special election in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. This is a case where the Democratic candidate, the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) finally “got it right” on immigration.

Faced with an aggressive, divisive attack by the harshly anti-immigrant Oberweis, Foster presented a positive, nuanced, and humane approach to the issue. At the same time, the DCCC aggressively targeted Oberweis for his hypocrisy on immigration. The combination of a solution-oriented approach by Foster and a hard-hitting offense by national Democrats neutralized the Republican attack’s potential effect on mainstream voters without alienating Latino voters.

This is a road map for future Democratic victories in swing districts where immigration will be an issue.

Anyone active in Illinois politics understands that Oberweis is a hard-line demagogue on immigration matters. He ran some of the harshest anti-immigrant commercials ever seen in Illinois during his 2004 Senate campaign, and he is a Board Member for Numbers USA, a virulently anti-immigration national advocacy group.

Given this history, it was inevitable that Oberweis would attack his opponent Foster as being pro-amnesty, and indeed his numerous TV ads accused Foster of wanting to use taxpayer dollars to help “illegal aliens” get “amnesty”.

Not so long ago, such a strategy might have proved effective in the 14th Congressional District, which was drawn to be reliably Republican territory. But unfortunately for Mr. Oberweis, the district is now home to a large and rapidly growing community of immigrants. In 2005, there were 190,000 Latinos and Asians living within the district’s borders and immigrants and their children accounted for a stunning 29.6 percent of the population. These demographical shifts are continuing across Chicago’s suburbs. During the last four years, vigorous non-partisan voter registration and citizenship efforts by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights have significantly changed the electorate in these areas.

Even knowing that he would face Oberweis’s attacks on the issue of illegal immigration, Foster chose not to adopt the hard-line, enforcement-first “anti-amnesty” position that the DCCC has been recommending over the past several years.

Instead, Foster advanced a positive, nuanced, and solutions-oriented approach to addressing illegal immigration. His position statement on the issue stressed “workable compromise”, “humanitarian” and “comprehensive” reform, and the importance of remaining a “nation of laws” with effective “border security”. Furthermore, rather than keep his distance, Foster reached out to immigrant advocates and Latino community leaders.

At the same time, the DCCC emphasized Oberweis’ major vulnerability on the issue: in November 2005 the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor on behalf of two undocumented workers who had been cleaning Oberweis Ice Cream stores in Chicago’s suburbs for $3.23 an hour. In the weeks leading up to the special election, the DCCC ran a series of mailers, robo-calls, and radio and TV ads highlighting the ICIRR complaint and ridiculing Oberweis’ hypocrisy on illegal immigration.

This tactic clearly infuriated Oberweis. On the of night March 6, just 36 hours before the polls opened, his son, who now runs the family dairy, filed a lawsuit against the DCCC, claiming that the ads were false. The net result? On the eve of the election numerous television stations replayed their archive footage of undocumented immigrants cleaning the Oberweis stores.

On March 8, Foster won the race with a convincing 5,000 vote margin, 53 percent to 47 percent. Dozens of Latino and immigrant activists were working to “Get Out The Vote” for Foster on Election Day and it is well worth noting that Foster carried the heavily Hispanic City of Aurora with a 3,200 vote margin.

This victory shows that a reasonable, solution-oriented approach to immigration combined with a hard offense on Republican hypocrisy can successfully neutralize accusations that Democrats are soft on illegal immigration – even in a Republican-leaning district. It is possible to do this without alienating Latino voters or pandering to the climate of hate that has engulfed the debate on immigration.

Bill Foster deserves to be complemented for running a campaign he can be proud of; the Democratic Party and the DCCC deserve to be complemented for finally getting it right on immigration.

Joshua Hoyt is the executive director of the Ilinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

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