Washington Matters


GOP's Risky Immigration Strategy

Mark Willen

Bowing to the right may come back to bite.



Republicans seem sure to pick up a couple of dozen House and Senate seats this year, but they could probably do a lot better -- if they’d only stop making stupid mistakes. Their stampede to the right, for example, only alienates a lot of voters in the vast middle of the political spectrum. It’s already hurting, and it seems likely to get worse.

For the first 15 months of the Obama administration, the GOP did quite well in full-time obstructive mode, making the best of a bad hand and scoring lots of points with voters worried about the economy, the debt and the growth of government. But there was always the risk of going too far, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did just that in trying to block the financial regulatory bill. He misjudged the public anger at Wall Street, underestimated the spin he could apply and ended up looking silly when President Obama forced him to back down.

Now comes immigration, with signs that the GOP has really lost its sense. Arizona may have a real problem with illegal immigration, but the law it passed is draconian and, more important, it won’t work -- unless being vindictive and hateful is the intention. It may help politically in the short term (a New York Times poll out today shows a majority of Americans agree with Arizona), and it will certainly help some candidates in GOP primaries. Long term, though, it promises to be a disaster.

Republicans are awfully good at crafting the message, but you can’t take both sides of an argument and expect to win against yourself. How can you support a state law saying Arizona had to act because Congress hasn’t and then insist on blocking any congressional action? How can Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) blast Obama for not working hard enough to pass an immigration bill he helped draft and then attack him for making passage a priority?

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The real shame is that the bill Graham helped write is a big improvement over the version defeated in 2007. In those heady days, when we thought partisanship was bad enough, 62 senators, including 23 Republicans, voted for the bill, and it had strong backing from President George W. Bush and the business community. It almost became law, but House GOP leaders refused to bring it up for a vote after the far right found its voice and mischaracterized it as amnesty -- a forbidden word.

The bill unveiled last week, with only Democratic support, is far tougher than the 2007 version. It stresses border control and a crackdown on employers. The draft bill would further expand the 20,000-member Border Patrol, triple fines against employers that hire illegal immigrants and require all American workers to get new Social Security cards linked to their fingerprints to prevent fraud.

But Republicans won’t touch it because it also provides a path to legal status for the estimated 10.8 million illegals already in the U.S. It’s still an “amnesty” in the GOP lexicon, although the bill requires undocumented immigrants to pay fines and back taxes and go to the end of the line -- hardly amnesty by any objective definition. And let’s face it, deporting that many people is impossible, and no matter how mean we are to them, they won’t go home because most now have families here.

And as Arizona and others blast the federal government for failing to protect our borders, they miss the fact that a great deal of progress was made under Bush and Obama. After growing by half a million a year in the mid-2000s, illegal immigration has fallen from a 2000 peak of 1.8 million to 556,000 in 2009, according to the Census Bureau and various think tanks. Apprehensions along the border with Mexico -- a rough guide to illegal crossings -- have dropped 50% over the past four years. Some of that is due to the recession, but heightened enforcement is also playing a big role. Is there still a big problem, including the drug war on the border with Mexico? Of course, and we need to pressure and help Mexico deal with that. But Arizona’s law is hardly going to help with that.

So why have Republicans like Arizona Sen. John McCain done an about-face on the issue? Opposition from the right in primary elections is the clear answer, but winning a primary won’t be worth it if you lose the general election. And long-term, it’s a terrible strategy for the GOP, which is cementing its reputation as the party of Whites only -- just when Whites are seeing their majority status shrink.

A new study by the Pew Hispanic Center shows why. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the country, and they already account for 15% of the total U.S. population. Bush made real headway in winning support, but now even Hispanic Republicans are turning away, and the damage may last generations. Consider Pew’s statistics in Arizona. Latinos make up 30% of the population, twice, the national average. Can McCain just write them off and let a Democratic opponent take the lion’s share of such a large, energized group? And think about the future. The average age of Arizona’s Latinos is 25, and 42% of K-12 students in the state are Latino.

The Pew statistics also put the lie to the notion that illegals are overrunning Arizona. Pew found that two-thirds of the Hispanics in the state were born in the U.S., so they’re U.S. citizens. Even if just half of the rest have green cards, that means fewer than one in six are here illegally. But all may be at risk of harassment under the Arizona law.

Immigration is only one of several issues on which Republicans are in danger of going too far. Ironically, this push to the right may not even be enough to satisfy the Tea Party extremists. The Washington Post had a fascinating story yesterday about Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. He is supposed to be a rising conservative star after his win last November, but as much as he tries to show the right he’s loyal and true, he can’t seem to go far enough to make conservatives happy. He tried to appease them when he declared April Confederate History month without mentioning slavery. When a backlash forced him to apologize, conservatives attacked him. They also criticized him for slashing -- rather than eliminating -- funding for Planned Parenthood.

Maybe GOP candidates will try to move to the center after the primaries are over, but that doesn’t seem likely. They’ll still do well in the 2010 elections, but it hardly seems like a winning strategy for 2012 and beyond.




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