A Bad Week for the GOP on Immigration

by Douglas Rivlin on March 4, 2010

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Immigration doesn’t break cleanly along left/right, liberal/conservative, or Democratic/Republican lines.  There are lots of pro-immigration and pro-immigrant conservatives and they come in different varieties.  Likewise, there are lots of progressives with deep reservations about immigration reform and immigration in general.   

But the divisions the immigration debate creates on the right are deeper, more passionate, and much more destructive to GOP unity than the division on the left and the last few weeks since the Tea Party and CPAC conferences have underscored this fact of political life.   

Within the Republican Party, you’ve got a lot of pragmatists who want immigration reform and a lot of others trying to find the balance between taking a strong stance against illegal immigration and not seeming to push away voters who are immigrants or closely tied to immigrants, for example, Latinos.   

Republican activist Linda Chavez wrote in TownHall.com that the immigration position of many Republicans these days is inconsistent with her notion of conservative values.  She points out that Republicans, who are theoretically opposed to heavy-handed government regulation, should naturally oppose strict regulation of immigration. 

The Washington Post’s Peter Slevin wrote a long piece over the weekend on the dilemma facing the GOP, quoting a leading GOP strategist. 

“The numbers don’t lie,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant. “If Republicans don’t do better among Hispanics, we’re not going to be talking about how to get Florida back in the Republican column, we’re going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.” 

And yet, as we all know, there are many in the Republican Party who haven’t gotten the message.  They range from the opportunistic and merely loopy to the deadly and violent. 

Here’s are a few highlights of how the immigration issue is playing out in the press that underscore the problem conservatives have with the immigration issue. 

First the Comic Relief

Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado Congressman, is the gift that keeps on giving.  Having keynoted the Tea Party convention in Nashville announcing his desire to see U.S. citizens tested for their civic knowledge before being allowed to vote, he is now attacking Tea darling and retired Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as not being “presidential.” He made these remarks in an interview with a Dutch publication, NRC Handelsblad 

The right-wing on-line publication Tancredo writes for, WorldNetDaily, delightfully and accurately known as WingNutDaily by progressive wags on the web, reported on the Dutch interview and went on to say that Tancredo could not rule out another run for President.   

Former Colorado congressman and Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo told WND today that if no one to his liking emerges in the 2012 run for the White House, he will consider another bid for the GOP nomination and would not rule out becoming a third-party candidate, as a “last option.” 

For the record, Tom, I have not ruled out a run for Pope or for Queen of England, but my chances are about as good as yours are of becoming President some day. 

The Wall Street Journal‘s Gerry Seib wrote this week about Tancredo’s “cringe-worthy” performance in at the Tea Party convention and how “the Tea Party movement threatens to pull the [Republican] party away from its moorings on two crucial and emotional issues: the war on terror and immigration.” Seib cites Tancredo’s crude conspiracy theories, as when he says of John McCain that had he won the White House, he and Mexican President Felipe Calderon “would be toasting the elimination of those pesky things called borders and major steps taken toward creation of a North American Union.” 

Razing Arizona

That same Senator John McCain is now locked in a primary battle for his Arizona U.S. Senate seat against a hard line, pro-Tea, anti-immigration talk-radio host, JD Hayworth.  McCain has been lining up support for his candidacy from Palin, Mitt Romney, and a slew of national Republican headliners.  Hayworth, who lost his House seat in 2006, is trying to match McCain, but is falling short, according to a Politico.com article this week

Hayworth hasn’t been able to point to anywhere near the same amount of establishment support. And his most prominent endorser, once-popular Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is under federal investigation for alleged abuse of power. 

Arpaio is the self-appointed “toughest Sheriff in America” who has spent a lot of the last several years making national and international headlines for his roundups of immigrants (which have sometimes netted citizens, too).  He is an icon for the anti-immigration movement and a magnet for civil right lawsuits, costing his local taxpayersmillions in legal fees.   

Meanwhile, the Arizona State Senate is in the grip of the anti-immigrant wing of the GOP, which is trying again to use state laws to send the political message that they are “tough on illegals.” The latest is an attempt to pass a law that makes being in the country illegally a violation of state felony trespassing laws so that local cops can arrest anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant (which, based on Arpaio’s track record, means anyone suspected of being a Latino or standing up to oppose racial profiling).  According to the Associated Press, the trespassing measure would make about 460,000 more people vulnerable to arrest and incarceration by the police.  Local police are not too happy about it. 

Many of the state’s local police bosses have long resisted suggestions that their officers conduct day-to-day immigration enforcement, saying it would distract them from investigating other crimes and sow distrust among immigrants, who might not help officers investigating crimes because they fear being sent home. 

“We are not anti-immigration enforcement,” said Kingman Police Chief Robert DeVries, who opposes the bill. “We are just concerned about some of the responsibilities that are being pushed on us and how it affects our ability to provide day-to-day services in our communities.” 

Despite the objections of police, the Arizona Senate already passed the trespassing measure and it may come up for a vote in the House at some point soon.   

It’s  “An Invasion”

The chief proponent of this effort, Republican Senator Russell Pearce of Mesa, says it is necessary because “The greatest threat to our neighborhoods is the illegal alien invasion.” 

Hmm, where have I heard that before?   

“We are here to tell you wake up Georgia and stop the Latino invasion now,” Imperial Wizard Jeff Jones said. (Jacksonville News, “Cheers, jeers greet Klan rally in Nahunt a,” Feb. 21, 2010) 

Oh, yes.  It was from the Ku Klux Klan of Southern Georgia who rallied against immigration a couple of weeks ago.  Amazing how those talking points get around. 

That’s probably unfair.  A lot of opponents of immigration use the term “invasion” to describe – and demonize – the current wave of immigrants.  Failed Presidential candidate and former WingNutDaily columnist Patrick Buchanan was saying it for years before he used it in the title for his 2006 book, “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.” Buchanan, who is a paid political analyst on MSNBC, uses the term regularly, along with the term “illegal” as a noun to describe an immigrant in the US illegally. 

The rhetoric of restrictionists now flows seamlessly from conservative politicians to media personalities to radical activists to Klansmen and back to talk jocks and politicians.   

Deadly Serious Part

Which is really scary when you look at what is happening on the radical right.  The other bad news for Republicans on immigration this week came from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that sued the KKK back to the Stone Age from whence it came and almost out of existence and continues to track hate groups in America. 

SPLC found that there has been an explosion of right wing “Patriot” groups since Obama took office and especially ones targeting non-white immigrants.  Mark Potok, of SPLC’s Intelligence Project wrote this week

The number of hate groups in America has been going up for years, rising 54 percent between 2000 and 2008 and driven largely by an angry backlash against non-white immigration and, starting in the last year of that period, the economic meltdown and the climb to power of an African American president. 

According to the latest annual count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, these groups rose again slightly in 2009 — from 926 in 2008 to 932 last year — despite the demise of a key neo-Nazi group. The American National Socialist Workers Party, which had 35 chapters in 28 states, imploded shortly after the October 2008 arrest of founder Bill White for making threats against his enemies

At the same time, the number of what the SPLC designates as “nativist extremist” groups — organizations that go beyond mere advocacy of restrictive immigration policy to actually confront or harass suspected immigrants — jumped from 173 groups in 2008 to 309 last year. Virtually all of these vigilante groups have appeared since the spring of 2005. 

And these groups are growing at the same time that hate crimes against all groups are growing – including hate crimes linked to immigration – even as overall violent crime is going down or holding steady. 

High profile cases are in the news.  The organization Long Island Wins has a moving blog with daily coverage of the trial of those accused of killing Marcelo Lucero in New York in November 2008.  Just last week, a 20-year old accused of federal civil rights violations related to the murder of Jose Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in July 2008, was paroled on the lesser state charges he faced. 

Tom Perez, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that in addition to targeting immigrants, the haters are targeting advocates for immigration reform 

He voiced concern, in particular, that hate crimes directed at Latinos are “on the rise” and recounted a prosecution recently brought in Trenton, N.J., against “DevilFish” – a man sending e-mail threats to leaders of the National Council of La Raza and other Hispanic leaders. 

Why? “They had the audacity to stand up for immigration reform,” Perez said. 

When a political movement’s rhetoric escalates so far that it becomes entwined in a violent fringe, that’s very bad news for America. 

It is also very bad news for legitimate opponents of illegal immigration and for the Republican Party that is most closely associated with illegal immigration as a political issue.  Clearly, most people with a concern about illegal immigration are not racists, especially not violent racists.  But the ones who are racists and violent racists taint almost anyone advocating against illegal immigration and even a lot of the people who advocate for reduced legal immigration. 

It is a political liability for the immigration-reduction side because Americans are repulsed when strong rhetoric turns to ugly action.  It also makes a debate on what to do about immigration much harder to conduct on civil terms.  The temptation is often too much for the pro-immigrant side to resist.  Many of us call almost everyone who opposes immigration a racist.  But the debate shuts down – and it especially shuts down for the 70 or 80 percent of Americans who don’t really feel strongly about the immigration issue one way or the other or who hold mixed, confused, and sometimes contradictory opinions about this most complex of issues. 

The Republican Party has lost a lot of moderates and is hemorrhaging over the immigration issue.  Why should Democrats or Progressives care?  Shouldn’t we stand by and let wing nuts like Tancredo, Hayworth, Pearce, Arpaio, and others lead the GOP over a cliff? 

When the GOP loses its reasonable center, it is a lot harder to accomplish anything in Washington, as we are seeing these days.  The leaders with whom Democrats could find common cause are no longer around.  Standing by as the hard liners bring the GOP down means being complicit in the gridlock.  As long as there is still hope that our politics can be rescued from hate, we should help those who want to work with us because inaction has real, unbearable costs.  People are dying – in the desert trying to get here, in detention, at the hands of vigilantes – and we know that reforming the system is within our grasp.  But with the political clock ticking, the window of opportunity for this President to make a difference this year is closing.

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