Run for the Border
Democrats try to outflank the GOP on immigration.
Opinion Journal | August 15, 2005
The politics of immigration are changing. On Friday Bill Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, declared a "state of emergency" in four New Mexico border counties due to "a chaotic situation involving illegal alien smuggling and illegal drug shipments." His office has pledged $1.5 million for stepped-up law enforcement and also asked Chris Simcox, the president of the volunteer border patrol group Minutemen, for a meeting. Mr. Richardson, a man who wears his ambition for national office on his sleeve, has apparently decided he has to reposition himself on border issues.
He's not the only Democrat to do so. Sen. Hillary Clinton made headlines when she embraced high-tech measures to control the border with Mexico and fines for employers who hire illegal aliens. "Democrats clearly sense frustration on immigration among Bush's base voters and are trying to outflank him rhetorically on the right," says Martha Montelongo, a talk-show hostess in California.
President Bush is vulnerable on immigration. Earlier this summer House Republicans bluntly told him that his proposal to admit guest workers would be dead on arrival unless accompanied by more border enforcement. "All my constituent town meetings want to talk about is immigration and why Washington is still spending so much money," Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas told me. Indeed, 17 of the 37 GOP House and Senate members who responded to a National Journal survey last month identified immigration as the issue "most on the minds" of their constituents. One Republican identified immigration as the issue on which "the mismatch between the federal government's inaction and the realities at home is the greatest."
The same survey identified why Democrats think they have some running room with their base on immigration. Only two of the 35 Democratic members of Congress who were surveyed mentioned immigration as being the top concern among their voters.
Like Republicans, Democrats have long had an ambivalent attitude on the politics of immigration. In 1952, a Democratic Congress passed and Harry S. Truman signed into law the so-called Texas Proviso, which stated that employing illegal aliens would not be a violation of the law. But a dozen years later, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson gave in to union demands and abolished the Bracero program, which allowed Mexicans to enter as "temporary" workers to pick crops and do other jobs. Jimmy Carter tried to repeal the Texas Proviso, but the Democratic Congress instead set up a commission to study the matter. It was not until 1986 that Congress outlawed the hiring of illegal aliens, a measure that has been sporadically enforced.
Mrs. Clinton wants to have it both ways when it comes to immigration. Despite her noises about beefing up enforcement, she did not talk about immigration, temporary-worker programs or border enforcement when she addressed the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights group in the country. "I was hoping to hear something," a surprised Nellie Moreno of Phoenix told the Washington Post.
Instead, Mrs. Clinton pandered to the liberal crowd and received a standing ovation when she announced a new bill that would guarantee in-state college tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants as well as amnesty to some 65,000 illegal immigrant students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Patti Solis Doyle, Mrs. Clinton's chief political strategist and a Mexican-American, told Democratic friends that the speech was a smashing success.
"Hillary won 85% of the Hispanic vote in New York for Senate in 2000," says her former adviser turned adversary Dick Morris. "She thinks she can outbid the Republicans for Hispanic votes in 2008 while bringing Reagan Democrats home with vague rhetoric about getting tough and employer sanctions she has no intention of implementing."
In New Mexico, Gov. Richardson has done much the same thing. He now blasts the federal government for not showing "the commitment or the leadership to deal with border issues." He is demanding that officials on the Mexican side bulldoze an abandoned town on the border that serves "as a staging area for illegal drugs and illegal aliens." But Mr. Richardson sang a different tune in late 2003, when he showed up at a rally for the "Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride" and told them, "¡Viva la raza! . . . Thank you for coming to Santa Fe. Know that New Mexico is your home. We will protect you. You have rights here." Jaime Becerril, one of the organizers of the freedom ride, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the participants favored a new amnesty program. He called immigration "a byproduct of colonialism and capitalism."
Further evidence of the governor's zigzag policy on immigration came in April when he vetoed a "No Fear" bill, which would have prohibited state and local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal authorities to detect or apprehend people based solely on immigration status. But then he quietly issued an executive order that had much the same effect. Earlier this year, he also signed legislation giving some illegal aliens the right to in-state tuition rates at public universities.
"The governor is all puff and no cigar," says David Pfeffer, a Santa Fe city councilman who abandoned the Democratic Party this past March when he concluded its members "were closer to Michael Moore than to me." He expects the governor "to run for national office while saying one thing while he does something else back home."
What is clear is that the Hispanic vote is more up for grabs than ever. Last year, about 60% of Hispanics voted for John Kerry. Sergio Bendixen, a pollster with the New Democrat Network, notes that Mr. Kerry won 65% of native-born Hispanics, even more than the 64% who voted for Bill Clinton in 1996. But support for Mr. Kerry among Hispanics who have immigrated to the U.S. dropped from Mr. Clinton's 82% to only 52% last year. "Hispanics who chose to come to this country and become citizens often embody the values of hard work, independence and freedom more than many native Americans," says Ms. Montelongo, the California talk-show hostess.
It's also clear that many Hispanics deplore the trend away from assimilation that has characterized U.S. policy in recent years. With dramatic gains in test scores among Hispanic students in English immersion programs since California voters ended most bilingual programs, a majority of the state's Hispanics embrace the new policy. And 47% of Hispanic voters in Arizona voted for Proposition 200, which denies some public services to illegal aliens and requires proof of citizenship to register to vote. As my colleague Steve Moore notes, the American people can't be expected to accept any immigration reform without assurances that all newcomers will follow in the path of other immigrant groups and assimilate.
President Bush's guest-worker program is politically stalled because of fears it will turn into another ill-fated amnesty program like the 1986 reform. But clearly a properly designed guest-worker program has promise. As the Bracero program for agricultural workers expanded in the 1950s, arrests of illegal aliens fell from 885,000 in 1953 to as low as 45,000 in 1959. After the Bracero program ended in 1964, apprehensions increased from 87,000 to 876,000 in 1976. They have remained at roughly that level or even higher ever since.
But Mr. Bush can win support for a guest-worker program only after he proves his bona fides in areas of legitimate concern on immigration. It is absurd that ranchers in New Mexico had to turn to state officials for money to repair fences at livestock yards on the border that had been trampled by smugglers bringing aliens across. At least 100 head of Mexican cattle had crossed the collapsed fence, bringing with them the threat of contagious diseases.
Similarly, Mr. Bush has to recognize that post-9/11 border security is now inextricably tied up in the public's mind with homeland security. In the ten months ending this July 24, border agents in the Tucson, Ariz., area arrested 375,000 illegals. More than 28,000 had criminal records, and dozens of others came from potentially worrisome countries such as Iran or Yemen.
Mr. Bush also needs to crack down on scofflaw officials who are thumbing their noses at federal immigration policy, including some in his own party. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has signed an executive order forbidding New York policemen to share information on immigration offenses with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, unless the immigrant breaks some other law or is suspected of terrorist activity.
As the maneuvering of Democrats such as Sen. Clinton and Gov. Richardson shows, Republicans risk letting Democrats turn immigration into a wedge issue that drives many voters to the other party. If Mr. Bush wants to leave office having brought about real immigration reform along with an increase in Hispanic support for Republicans, he must also pull off the delicate balancing act of convincing Americans that the federal government hasn't lost complete control of the border. Otherwise, the issue will remain stalemated and ripe for political demagoguery.