The GOP's Immigration Problem

by Michael Sean Winters

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The front page of this morning’s Washington Post makes for some sober reading. An article by Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner details the way immigration keeps coming up at GOP presidential candidate forums, even though the candidates will have been more likely to have begun the forums discussing jobs and the economy. Yet, polls show the issue way down on the list of priorities for most voters, including most GOP primary voters.

When asked to explain the phenomenon, a Republican pollster, Jon Lerner, said, “Immigration is not even close to the top issue for most Republicans today, but it is an issue that is heavy with symbolic importance to GOP voters. If a candidate is squishy on immigration, that symbolically suggests that he’s probably unreliable on a who host of other conservative issues.” Lerner is self-evidently wrong. No one can reasonably look at Gov. Rick Perry’s relatively moderate stance on immigration and think he is “sqiushy” on other top conservative concerns. And, it is a stretch to think that GOP primary voters are still trying to free themselves from the legacy of George W. Bush in this regard. They fault him for his reckless spending far more than they do for his attempt to get comprehensive immigration reform passed if for no other reason than the attempt on immigration failed.

Perry has been pulling back his position, instead focusing on the bogus claim that we need to secure the border completely before embarking on immigration reform. Why bogus? Because many of those immigrants who are in the U.S. without papers did not swim the Rio Grande or cross the desert: They entered the U.S. legally and over-stayed their visas.

Perry’s people are pointing out that Texas has a different perspective on border issues given the fact that they have the longest border with Mexico and that there are a plethora of familial and economic ties that cross the border. Texas has its own version of the DREAM Act, paving a path to citizenship for those immigrants who were brought here as children and who serve in the U.S. military or attend college, which Republicans nixed in the last Congress. Rick Perry signed the law. And, he opposed Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law last year, saying it wouldn’t work for Texas, but there is no state in the union which has a more similar relationship to Mexico than does Arizona. If opposing immigration is your top issue, then Perry may not be your guy.

According to the Post article, Michele Bachmann was asked about immigration at a recent event in South Carolina, and the first question posed to Mitt Romney at a recent town hall in Keene, New Hampshire was about immigration. This goes to prove my theory that the extremism of one’s views on immigration is usually in direct, reverse correlation to your proximity to the border. In Texas, California and New Mexico, being too anti-immigrant will kill you at the polls. Arizona may be different in recent years, but those counties that are closest to the actual border tend to be those that are the most humane on immigration. But, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, if you are looking for someone to blame for the fact that your city is not producing more jobs, it is easy to jump on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. So, Bachmann and Romney throw the red meat. Bachmann’s people should pay attention especially: Perry is extremely vulnerable on this issue with most GOP primary voters.

Why is immigration such a big issue? It is not like there has been any big wave of illegal immigration in the past couple of years. In fact, just the reverse has occurred as the faltering U.S. economy has served as less of a draw for workers from abroad. And, the leaders of the Republican Party are smart enough to realize that the issue is a two-edged sword for them. On the one hand, it helps with white working class voters. On the other hand, Latinos are the fastest growing demographic group in the country and alienating them is not the best way to secure the party’s long-term future. Putting Marco Rubio on the ticket will not be enough to win Latinos if the GOP is determined to deport their cousins.

The Post’s article provides a clue as to why the issue resonates so. It has nothing to do with politics really. This issue is all about psychology. When Bachmann gave her most red meat-filled response on the issue, calling Mexico a “narco-terrorist state” and complaining the government was not doing enough because “We are seeing criminals, felons, drugs, we’re seeing contagious diseases coming into our country,” one listener, Rick Wiedenhoft, a retired Air Force veteran, said he was still unsatisfied. “The very town I live in is a sanctuary city, and I’m very ashamed of that,” he told the Post. “I served in the military for 20 years defending the flag. And I resent people coming in here and taking advantage of us. I consider them invaders.” ‘Nuff said.

Republicans have created a nightmare scenario for themselves on this issue, and it was completely avoidable. If, in 2006, they had backed President Bush’s push for comprehensive reform, they would not be in this situation. The current crop of candidates needs to run hard right on the issue to win the primaries and then scoot back to the center for the general election. That is the same dynamic on most issues, but immigration is not most issues. For a significant and growing slice of the electorate, the issue is existential and they are not going to give someone a pass on it. In Texas, Perry was a moderate in immigration because, if he wasn’t, he would have hastened the day when Texas becomes purple and then blue. Now, that history will haunt him and, because the reasons for the GOP’s fixation on immigration have to do with the psychological need to find a scapegoat, there is not much he can to create nuance on the issue. This is not only Perry’s problem in 2012, but the GOP’s problem for the next several decades. They are alienating the fastest growing part of the population – and for what? Because a retired Air Force officer harbors resentment? Because, too many parents look at their entitled children, who seem unable to accept any responsibility, unable or unwilling to work hard or even to help out around the house, and then they see Latino families and Asian families working at family businesses long hours to get ahead, and they can’t help but admire them? Because time has passed Hazleton by, and they want someone to blame?

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