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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Kaine pollster Pete Brodnitz backs this up with numbers. Though the 70 percent of Virginia voters who thought immigration was the most important issue pulled the lever for Kilgore, he lost 2-to-1 among moderates turned off by his anti-immigrant rhetoric. He ran well behind Bush's record in suburban and exurban areas close to Washington. And asked the day before the balloting who they trusted more to handle immigration, voters split evenly between Kaine and Kilgore, with nearly a quarter still unsure, confused rather than enlightened by the divisive campaign. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, Kilgore also alienated Hispanics. Though only a third of Virginia Hispanics are Democrats--and as of May 2005 they were evenly divided about who should be governor--they had turned sharply against Kilgore by Election Day, voting 58-to-42 percent for his opponent.

No doubt a better candidate would have handled things better. Poll after poll shows that voters sense the complexity of the issue--that immigrant workers are good for the economy, and impose costs on American taxpayers; that national security is a real concern, and we can't just close the border; that unlawful behavior should not be rewarded, and we can't deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States. What's needed are candidates who can speak to this complexity and offer balanced, practical solutions. A recent survey of Republican voters conducted by the Tarrance Group for the Manhattan Institute bears this out: More than three-quarters of those polled favored a policy that combined much tougher border enforcement, much tougher penalties for employers who hired unauthorized workers, and a way for illegal immigrants to earn their way onto the right side of the law.

The bottom line: Immigration can perhaps be a winner in November, but not as a wedge issue designed to divide and agitate voters. Candidates face a choice: bashing immigrants or making a constructive effort to address the problem, and Republicans in particular will pay a price for getting it wrong. The cost among Latino voters, the fastest-growing bloc in the country, is obvious. (It's no accident that the California GOP has been unable to deliver a majority for a Republican presidential candidate since its 1994 decision to back the anti-immigrant ballot initiative Proposition 187.) But that will not be the end of it. An anti-immigrant crusade would alienate businesses, both those that employ immigrants and those that see them as potential customers. It would divide congressional candidates from the president and cloud his efforts to create a Reaganesque legacy of openness and optimism. And as in Virginia, it would alienate moderates, both in the party and undeclared. If all this isn't suicidal, surely it adds up to something close. Is the fool's gold that tempting?

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.