The Magazine

The Immigration Temptation

The political issue that always disappoints is back.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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CONGRESSWOMAN KAY GRANGER WAS PRACTICING a stump speech before an audience of big-time Republican donors. Her district, anchored by the bustling city of Fort Worth, is experiencing a host of problems linked to illegal immigration: day laborers loitering in strip malls, an influx of Spanish-speaking children in the schools, longer-than-usual waits in emergency rooms. Yet the congresswoman hardly mentioned any of this.

Her concerns were larger and more alarming. She noted that a troubling number of the non-Mexican illegal immigrants apprehended in 2004 were Afghans (in fact, they accounted for 57 out of 98,000 in 2004), and she warned that the gangland drug wars raging in Nuevo Laredo (nearly 400 miles away, on the other side of a heavily policed border) would soon be spilling over into Fort Worth. It was hard to say whether Granger was addressing local worries or fanning them, wrestling with real threats or creating fear. But one thing seemed certain: Like many Republican members of Congress, she intends to make illegal immigration a centerpiece of her campaign in the coming midterm election.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom in Washington holds that immigration is emerging as a pivotal issue in the 2006 elections. Some of the capital's most quoted columnists and pollsters say it is the topic to watch, not just in border states but anywhere, from the heartland to the Deep South, that has experienced an influx of newcomers. These pundits expect immigration to loom large in GOP primaries, with incumbents being challenged from the right, as well as in November between Republicans and Democrats.

And though Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has long been pressing in a different direction--struggling to shape a GOP more welcoming to minority voters--a bottom-up revolt is taking place within the party: a push to talk tough and crack down in the hope of appealing to the conservative base. It's no accident that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist featured immigration and border security in his fall fundraising mail piece, or that the House's last act before disbanding for the holidays was to pass a bill calling for a fence along the border. The tough-talkers' hope: that immigration will be the GOP's new secret weapon, an emotional wedge issue to rally voters, pumping up turnout and helping Republicans hold on to threatened majorities in both houses of Congress.

The only problem is that neither public opinion research nor recent electoral history supports this hope. And Republicans planning to ride an anti-immigrant groundswell to victory do so at their peril--and the party's.

Of course, immigration is an increasingly pressing issue, both locally and nationwide. With some 1.5 million foreigners entering the country each year, more than a third of them illegally, voters are ever more concerned not just with the changes they observe, but also with a sense that the system is out of control--that minor irritants like loitering day laborers and Spanish heard in the supermarket will soon be growing exponentially. The issue appeals to a range of dark emotions: economic insecurities, fear of terrorism, and resentment about spending tax revenues on people who have no right to be here in the first place. Then there are the cultural concerns. According to Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, some 40 percent of the public think the growing number of newcomers "threaten traditional American customs and values."

A chorus of restrictionist candidates, bloggers, and talk show hosts inflame these fears, and before long there is no separating the real from the exaggerated. Nor does it help, as some Democratic pundits point out gleefully, that Republican congressional candidates have little else to run on in 2006--few new domestic successes, a fresh batch of scandals, and not much else to distract from the war in Iraq.

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that any but a small minority of Americans care enough about immigration to vote on it. True, a recent Time survey found that nearly two-thirds of the public think illegal immigration is a serious problem, and according to a December Gallup poll, more than half would like to see the number of foreigners admitted each year reduced. It's also true that the "salience" of the issue--how important it is to people--has risen in the last year or so. Still, of eight major surveys that measured immigration's salience in recent months, none found it anywhere near the top of the list nationally.