LOS ANGELES Immigration has burned among the hottest of the hot-button issues in the current presidential race. Yet in their first big one-on-one debate, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama left little daylight between them in showing unity on the issue.
And, guess what? They didn't leave much daylight between themselves and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican frontrunner, either.
Obama even mentioned at one point, "I worked with John McCain" on immigration, "although he may not admit it now."
No, probably not. McCain has been pilloried too much already by some in his own party's right wing for cosponsoring last year's failed attempt to pass a comprehensive immigration plan.
Even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who described McCain's immigration proposals as "reasonable" as recently as late 2005, has since denounced the bill as "amnesty" for illegals.
Romney appears to have been listening to his party's angry wing chattering away on talk radio and cable television about "hordes," "floods" and "tsunamis" of "invading" immigrants "taking our jobs."
Yet you don't have to be an agent of the angry right to feel agitated about the nation's broken immigration policy. The anxious left feels it, too.
You could hear some of those anxieties in the question that a Minnesota woman submitted to Clinton and Obama in their Los Angeles debate on the negative economic impact of immigration on black workers.
"How do you propose," she asked, "to address the high unemployment rates and declining wages in the African-American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?"
Good question. She also received two good answers, which is more than we could say about a lot of the hasty responses in the crowded earlier debates.
Both candidates cautioned against "scapegoating" immigrants for urban unemployment left behind by the loss of jobs to structural economic shifts.
It is not just blacks, Obama pointed out, who are experiencing such job pressures. He recalled the rainbow of races, ethnicity and troubles in which he worked as a community organizer among laid-off steelworkers on Chicago's far south side.
The cause of that problem, he pointed out, is not immigrants taking jobs but employers taking jobs away and moving them overseas.
We need to get control of our borders, he said, but we also need "crack down on those employers who are taking advantage of the situation, hiring folks who cannot complain about workers conditions, who aren't getting the minimum wage sometimes or aren't getting overtime."
He also called for a classic Democratic recipe of education funding, infrastructure investment and tax incentives for the poor and middle class.
Clinton told a poignant anecdote of her own. She described a black man she met in Atlanta who used to work construction jobs, he said. He told her how it seems like the only people who get those jobs now are "people who are here without documentation."
To "bring our country together," both candidates called for the sort of comprehensive immigration reform that McCain has promoted.
Illegals should have to pay a fine, pay back taxes over time, try to learn English ("And we have to help you do that," Clinton said, "because we've cut back on so many of those services") and then wait their turn for citizenship behind those who have gone through the proper legal channel.
The only sharp difference between Clinton and Obama on immigration came with the granting of drivers licenses to illegal workers. Obama maintained that granting them licenses would reduce other problems, like hit-and-runs by illegal drivers who fear deportation. Clinton, who had sounded like a waffler on the issue during an earlier debate, firmly argued against granting licenses to illegals, but defended her support for her state's governor's opposing position out of personal loyalty to him.
Beyond that, they differ from Republicans more than from each other. With that, it is ironic that McCain's campaign has gathered momentum in recent weeks despite conservative opposition to his reasonable middle-of-the-road immigration prescriptions.
Should he win his party's nomination, we might just see immigration recede as a hot-button issue in this presidential race. Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also have shown an encouraging capacity for reason on this issue. If Romney or Huckabee were to be nominated, their past pursuits of reasonable compromise could reemerge as they try to woo independent swing voters away from the Democratic nominee.
Perhaps then we can move as a nation to something we used to be pretty good at reaching, a reasonable compromise on a problem that sharply divides us as it seems to be running out of control.