The main role of progressives so far in the immigration debate has largely been a defensive one — trying to beat back the ugly tide of nativism that has driven most of the legislation and activism around the issue in recent years, especially within the Republican Party.

We saw this dynamic at work this week, when the focus fell on the wave of hatefulness that’s been the regular drumbeat on immigration both within the media and within political circles in the recent past. A coalition of progressive reformists came out firing with a campaign aimed at stopping the drumbeat, fueled by the recognition that it has been fueled in large part by reckless rhetoric from mainstream Republicans and media figures — most notably, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who when confronted with demands for accountability on this score has blustered and lied — but the debate still took place largely on his terms.

However, even Republicans are starting to realize that not only is immigrant-bashing a non-starter for them — for instance, the otherwise quite clueless David Brooks is aware enough to plead: "Can we please stop pretending that immigration is a good issue for Republicans?" — it’s a dead end for the party in the long term. Certainly, whatever advantage among Latinos the GOP might have gained under Bush’s tenure has been demolished by the likes of Tom Tancredo and the rest of the GOP field.

Progressives need to recognize that immigration reform, conversely, can be a real winning issue for them — especially for the long term. The electorate’s rebuke of Republican nativists is a chance to completely and permanently alter the field of play, to get away from fighting defensive battles and to go on the offensive — instituting a progressive approach to immigration that is both humane and effective for working-class Americans across the racial and economic spectrum.

The immigration debate, for those progressives who have already been deeply involved in it, has in fact felt rather like waiting for Godot — we know our fellow progressives are going to be coming along any day now to join the journey toward effective reform. Still, we sit and sit, checking our watches as the clock ticks down, and we wonder.

So far, the debate has almost entirely revolved around the division between rival factions of the right: the corporate conservatives who have benefited from the status quo and would benefit even more from a "guest worker" program; and the nativist bloc that wants every one of the 12 million "illegal aliens" in America rounded up and "sent back where they came from."

If there is a progressive position, it has largely been involved in knocking down nonsense from both sides of the right, but particularly the race-baiting nativist factions. If there is a positive position, it hasn’t been enunciated clearly at all — which means that there has been precious little advocacy from the left. It’s well past time for that to change.

This is especially the case because the rightist factions have managed to simply dismiss any advocacy from the left as being about "open borders" — see, for instance, the way that Dobbs dismissed the factual evidence regarding his reliance on white supremacists and hate groups in his broadcasts by claiming that both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL are advocates of "open borders" (actually, they’re not). That is, of course, a typically false smear from the right. And elucidating a clear progressive position is the only way to overcome it.

As Rick Jacobs, the chief organizer of this summer’s Dreams Across America tour — a ride on which I tagged along for FDL — observed at the time at Huffington Post:

The immigrant’s rights movement has been more about rights than about movement. Up to now, we have seen hundreds of thousands of mostly Mexicans marching in downtown LA or other cities, opposing draconian law or demanding rights. But as my friend Paula Litt at Liberty Hill Foundation says, there is no inalienable right to become a US citizen. So the movement has brought lots of unions and people of color (read: Latino and Asian) together, it has not inspired the online activists who write blogs and checks or the white political elite who write checks to take action.

Matt Stoller has also talked about this:

What is clear is that if progressives are going to play on immigration, we need a strategy and a set of arguments. My gut says that this is going to require linking immigration and trade, since this is an issue having to do with labor, capital, and goods all flowing across borders. Our current immigration ‘problems’ (or opportunities, depending on whether you a big business guy who likes slave labor) cannot be disassociated from NAFTA, and I’m curious why that attempt was made.

In other words, if there’s a ‘grand bargain’ to be struck on immigration, it should address the millions of Mexicans and Americans thrown into poverty by our trade policies, who then become immigrants or dispossessed. Regardless, the immigration debate, for it to be relevant to progressives, has to be linked to a larger narrative of economic instability. There’s something about labor rights in there, but labor has so little reach now that we need new arguments.

This is exactly right, so far as it goes. However, we also need to understand that immigration encompasses much more than merely economics and trade — it’s about fundamental human decency, it’s about our place in the world and our cultural and economic health, but most of all it’s about the meaning of what it is to be American:

What America has always been about is our shared values — a love of freedom and a respect for others’ freedoms, our willingness to work hard, our desire to raise our families in a safe and healthy place, and our wish to pass all that on to our children and their children.

For most of the past century — since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which codified the racist desire to keep out people who were not white (specifically, Chinese and Japanese) — our immigration laws have been predicated on the desire to keep people out, because we believed their skin color and nationality mattered more than their values. As the Dreamers and their stories make clear, it is time to find a way to welcome those who are, inside, truly American.

When that happens, we finally will begin living up to our own great ideal: the American dream.

Progressive values encompass all those things, and a progressive position on immigration will naturally be about them as well. But progressives haven’t taken it because it hasn’t been clear to them just how they can enunciate those things in a cohesive way that makes sense not just to them but to all Americans.

This, I think, is why liberals have largely sat on their hands on this. Check out, if you will, the comments that came in to HuffPo over Jacobs’ posts, or those that poured in to the Dreams Across America blog: they were overwhelmingly nativist (with many of them claiming, without much evidence, that they really are progressives, with the less-than-persuasive caveat that they’re "just opposed to illegal immigration"). It has been hard to find many liberals actually willing to engage and refute their nonsense.

It also seems clear that progressives don’t quite comprehend the importance of the immigration debate — it just seems to many of us that this is an issue raised by conservatives and is simply an in-house fight among them. But the truth is that, probably more than any other issue confronting the nation beyond the Iraq war, it is a debate that will profoundly affect America’s culture and economy, and its position in the world, for decades to come.

Most of all, it is probably the greatest opportunity in many years for progressives to regain their position of cultural strength, to make tremendous gains among average Americans in the heartland, and to reestablish liberalism as a powerful force for good in the political realm.

Doing so will require two significant steps:

– Refuting the flood of wrong-headed garbage that’s been coming from both factions of the right in this debate.

– Enunciating a clear and powerful position for progressives that encompasses their values, as well as those of Americans at large.

I’ll be devoting the next two posts in this space (Thursdays at 6 pm FDL) to precisely that project. And in the interim, I’m also interested in input from other progressives. We’ll have a lively conversation here, I hope, and some of it will make it into next week’s installment.