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Treasure trove of memos shows Emanuel's politics in White House

A treasure trove of documents from former President Bill Clinton’s administration shows a young staffer — Rahm Emanuel — pushing his boss to get tough on illegal immigrants and seize crime-fighting from the Republicans as a defining issue.

The previously restricted memos from Emanuel to Clinton are among thousands of White House documents made public this year through the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. The documents were kept secret until 12 years after Clinton’s second term ended in 2001.

Emanuel’s current stance on immigration seems to differ from what he was proposing to Clinton in the 1990s.

As mayor, Emanuel says he supports reducing deportations and accelerating citizenship for immigrants. When he was an adviser for Clinton, he called for “record deportations of criminal aliens” and told the president that “halfway through your term you want to claim a number of industries free of illegal immigrants.”

But the Emanuel administration doesn’t see a conflict between his advice to Clinton and his current immigration policy.

“Mayor Emanuel’s position has been consistent: the U.S. government must find a way to put 12 million undocumented Americans on a path to citizenship. He has always believed that law enforcement should not be focused on those who enter the country illegally, but on those who commit violent crimes while here,” said a spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn, on Thursday.

“This policy is now the core of all immigration reform, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s bipartisan legislation. The mayor’s philosophy is what led to the passage of a law to permanently make Chicago a welcoming city for immigrants regardless of their status, and the creation of the city’s first Office of New Americans that is now a national model for immigrant integration.”


Mark Brown column, Jan. 16, 2011: Does Rahm have real credentials on immigration?

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On crime and drugs, meanwhile, Emanuel urged the president to wrest those issues from the Republicans.

In one 1995 memo, Emanuel even suggested that the president jump into the fray over New York Yankees star Darryl Strawberry testing positive for drugs. He called for Clinton’s drug czar, Lee Brown, to meet with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and demand that Strawberry perform community service.

Brown publicly stated that the Yankees “have struck out by signing Darryl Strawberry.” But Steinbrenner said Strawberry was “worth saving” and he played for the Yankees for four years.

Emanuel’s positions on immigration and crime have been widely reported over the years.

But the memos provide new insight into the politics behind those positions.

They’re laid out succinctly in a Nov. 20, 1996, domestic policy memo from Emanuel to Clinton after he won his second term.

“This is great,” Clinton scrawled on the memo.

On immigration, Emanuel called for the president to expand hearings in Illinois and six other states “to claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.”

“The GOP Congress wants to fight the immigration issue out on government benefits. You want to take it to them on the workplace,” Emanuel added. “The INS should be directed to expand the VIS to key industries, beyond meat-packers and poultry. Halfway through your term you want to claim a number of industries free of illegal immigrants.”

He also suggested dramatically expanding the use of the National Guard “to secure key metropolitan areas along the border.” Clinton scribbled “agree” next to that proposal.

Emanuel also called for a one-month moratorium on naturalization of immigrants “to review past files for criminal misconduct.”

“You will need such steps to get ahead of a bad story,” Emanuel wrote.

On crime, Emanuel emphasized the importance of using law and order as a political tool.

“Your working philosophy has always been to move the either/or policy debates which in the past consumed Washington,” Emanuel wrote. “For example you have stated that criminal justice policy is not a choice between punishment or prevention but the collaborated effort of policing the streets, punishing criminals and preventing crime.”

“In addition to being sound policy this is good politics. By incorporating the opposition’s rhetoric, you remove their policy claims,” Emanuel wrote. “Another key political part of this strategy is positioning. You have been successful when you position yourself on your strongest ground against your opponent’s weakest position (i.e. Police vs. NRA).”

“Since Nixon’s Law and Order campaign, crime has been a staple in the GOP platform,” he said. “Over the past four years, your policies have redefined the issue and allowed Democrats to achieve parity. The question you now face is how do we build on the last four years?”

What that memo and others underscore is that Emanuel is a political animal — not an ideologue. He’s always been fixated on message control and putting political points on the board.

That’s evident on the issue of immigration reform, which he’s struggled with for his entire career in politics.

During Emanuel’s days as chief of staff for President Barack Obama, Gutierrez accused Emanuel of being responsible for Obama’s failure to deliver on his campaign promise to Hispanics that he would reform immigration policy. Gutierrez retaliated in 2011, when he endorsed mayoral candidate Gery Chico over Emanuel.

Now that Emanuel is mayor and needs the Hispanic vote to get re-elected, he’s more like the lead blocker than the primary roadblock to immigration reform. He joined in a hunger strike and lobbied for immigration reform at swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens.

“The immigration issue has completely changed in 20 years and so has the Democratic Party, the labor movement and a lot of other people,” Gutierrez said Thursday. “Today I seek the mayor’s counsel all the time on this issue. From passing a welcoming city ordinance, protecting undocumented families from deportation, to helping DREAMers attend college, he is a national leader on immigration.”

While Emanuel appears to have flip-flopped on immigration, his philosophy on crime-fighting has remained consistent.

He focused on policing, prevention and punishment in his 1996 domestic policy memo to Clinton. As mayor, he continues to stress the “four Ps” — policing, prevention, punishment and parenting. Emanuel also is focused like a laser on Chicago’s crime trends — as he was in the Clinton White House when he was regularly tracking national crime statistics.

Emanuel honed his skills at managing crime as a political issue under Clinton, the White House memos show. He was an architect of one of Clinton’s crowning achievements: the 1994 crime bill, which promised 100,000 additional police officers and created harsher penalties for a variety of crimes.

The memos show Emanuel’s painstaking efforts to pick up votes for the $33 billion crime bill — one congressman at a time. In a Sept. 17, 1993, memo, for example, Emanuel said he was arranging for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., to receive a White House briefing on the bill.

“Because of local politics, the Congressman is inclined to support the legislation and be vocal and active in his support,” Emanuel explained in a memo to Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser, Bruce Reed.

The memos show Emanuel was keenly aware of polling numbers on crime. In the 1990s, voters cared about crime more than almost any other issue, according to the memos.

Emanuel was getting regular updates from the Justice Department on crime statistics across the country. The updates were accompanied by newspaper stories about dramatic decreases in crime in Boston, New York and other cities, according to the memos.

He urged the president to mention the decreases in his public comments — advice Emanuel continues to follow as mayor of Chicago.

Emanuel wrote about “keeping crime on the president’s radar screen.”

A Dec. 1, 1997, memo recommended Clinton give a major speech on the subject to set the tone for his second term in office.

“The speech would not put forth specific initiatives or policies, but mark your overall philosophy based on what we have learned fighting these issues over the past five years,” Emanuel wrote.

“I think that the speech should be intentionally controversial. It should attack both the left and the right and should be written to create a debate on the issues of crime and drugs.”

The president responded: “Rahm, I like it.”

Nov. 1996 Emanuel Memo to Clinton

December 1997 Memo from Emanuel to Clinton