The Magazine

Bordering on Defeat

Immigrant bashing is for losers.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By STEPHEN MOORE
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IF THERE IS ANY PLACE in America where the anti-immigration message should receive a receptive hearing, it would seem to be Colorado. Few states have been as heavily affected by the influx of immigrants over the past dozen years. The number of immigrants has nearly tripled in that time, and antigrowth and development restrictions are all the rage thanks to the huge population gains (both native-born and immigrant).

Yet every indication is that the closed-border mentality doesn't play well here politically. The Denver Post recently reported that proponents of a November ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to prohibit the provision of state services to illegal aliens has fallen with a thud for lack of money.

When Ben Nighthorse Campbell unexpectedly announced his retirement from the Senate and popular GOP governor Bill Owens announced he would not run, many people assumed Rep. Tom Tancredo--by far the best-known member of Colorado's congressional delegation and a solid fiscal conservative--would coast to an easy win in the primary. But Tancredo, the leading anti-immigration voice on Capitol Hill, pulled out. It turns out that while Tancredo's crusade against immigration has gained him a loyal following among like-thinking conservatives, his political negatives are also in the stratosphere.

Yet Tancredo has a broad following among his colleagues on Capitol Hill. His anti-immigration coalition has 69 mostly conservative Republican members. These Republicans favor an outright moratorium on all immigration--legal and illegal.

One of the few in the party who adamantly rejects this notion is George W. Bush. Immigrants are assets, not liabilities, says Bush. He's right, of course, but when the White House unveiled his immigration reform proposal back in January, the plan was lambasted as "amnesty" by his conservative critics and has not even found a congressional sponsor. Bush has come under attack for being "soft on illegal immigration," and this has wounded the Bush-Cheney team with its conservative base.

To preempt such attacks, the plan certainly should have emphasized security issues more prominently. But the gist of the president's proposal is economically wise, politically sensible, and humane. He would try to reduce illegal immigration by introducing a guest worker program so that migrant workers can come through the border lawfully to do the agricultural work they've been doing for 200 years; he would create an earned legalization program for those 8 million illegal immigrant workers already here; and most important he would preserve the legal immigration visa system, so that lawful channels remain open and accessible to those around the globe who aspire to become Americans. The big benefit of the White House plan is that it would allow workers to come and contribute their talents and admirable work ethic, while allowing border security and law enforcement officials to concentrate their resources on keeping out undesirables: potential terrorists, criminals, and public welfare claimants.

So Republicans are now torn between divergent ideologies on immigration--a nativist stand represented by Tancredo and a welcoming one represented by Bush. The tensions are palpable. Pat Buchanan, who wants to bar as many people and goods from coming into the United States as possible, predicts "another Goldwater moment in the Grand Old Party, like 1960, when the grassroots began to rumble and rise in rebellion. . . . Immigration is the most explosive [issue], as is seen in the stunning recoil to Bush's amnesty early this year."

But if conservatives are "recoiling" from what Buchanan calls the "immigrant invasion," where is the electoral evidence? (Buchanan himself, recall, mustered a grand total of 1 percent of the presidential vote in 2000.) The answer is that there is none. In virtually every congressional race in recent years where the issue came up, it has been the candidate who wants to drape a "No Admittance" sign over the Statue of Liberty who lost the election--even in Republican primaries.

Restrictionist themes have been tried many times over in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (as if denying visas to Mexican migrant workers were going to protect us from al Qaeda). On almost every occasion the seal-the-border candidates have fallen. Last year, it was state representative Carl Isett in Texas's 19th congressional district, running in a special election. This March, it was hard-charging, dynamic state senator Rico Oller in the GOP primary in the third district of California who hammered Dan Lungren mercilessly for supporting "amnesty" in the mid-1980s. Lungren won.

Most recently, in the Republican primary in Illinois, Senate candidate Jim Oberweis spent millions of dollars on immigrant-bashing TV and radio ads but still finished a distant second place, to Jack Ryan, who is pro-immigration.