How Arizona reflects changes in the country’s immigration politics. From our new July/August issue, just in time for a federal lawsuit.
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Subsequent Republican statewide candidates did poorly, but few of them made Wilson-like sounds on immigration — until Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, admitted he voted for Prop 187 and made an issue out of driver’s licenses for illegals during his successful run for governor. When California Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Meg Whitman criticized Arizona’s SB 1070, primary opponent Steve Poizner sensed an opening and Whitman was forced to pivot back in a more Wilsonian direction.
BUT THE BIGGEST SHIFT has come from the Republican politician most associated with comprehensive immigration reform. John McCain backed off the idea during the 2008 Republican primaries, when his immigration partnership with Ted Kennedy nearly derailed his candidacy. “I got the message,” McCain promised on the campaign trail. “We will secure the border first.” In his senatorial primary against former congressman J. D. Hayworth, however, McCain makes Pete Wilson look like a piker.
Consider McCain’s television commercial on the issue, filmed in the border town of Nogales. McCain walks with Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu and begins to rattle off the illegal immigration-related social disorders that afflict the community: “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.” “We’re outmanned,” the sheriff replies. “Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.” McCain asks if his plan, cosponsored with fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, is the right one: National Guardsmen on the border, 3,000 new border patrol agents, and “complete the danged fence.”
“Plan’s perfect,” the sheriff assures McCain, before concluding, “Senator, you’re one of us.” McCain once described that “danged fence” to Vanity Fair as “the goddamn fence” as a way of signaling his reluctance to build it. If Democrats believe leniency toward illegal immigration will benefit them in a future, more Hispanic political market, Republicans — even those sympathetic to immigration expansion — are increasingly betting that the current shape of the electorate makes border enforcement imperative now.
These divergent views of immigration and partisan self-interest have hobbled bipartisan cooperation on the issue in Washington. This is the main reason Lindsey Graham pulled out as the sole Republican supporter of both amnesty and cap and trade. He believed the Democrats were bringing up immigration as a “cynical ploy” to get Republicans to take the lead in voting it down so that Democrats could reap the dividends with Hispanic voters — possibly at the expense of Graham’s friend McCain. “Let’s be clear,” Graham wrote in an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “A phony, political effort on immigration today accomplishes nothing but making it exponentially more difficult to address in a serious, comprehensive manner in the future.” (Reid is also banking on heavy Hispanic turnout to save his Senate seat this fall.)
It remains to be seen which side is reading the tea leaves correctly. According to the Census Bureau, the share of the Hispanic vote actually fell slightly from 6 percent in 2004 to 5.9 percent after House Republicans killed amnesty in 2006, suggesting a pro-immigration Latino backlash might have been the least of the GOP’s problems that year. In Arizona, while 30 percent of the residents are Hispanic only 12 percent of the voters are.
Moreover, Hispanic voters appear to be ambivalent about illegal immigrants, who are in some cases their relatives and in others their competitors for jobs and legal immigration opportunities. A recent Zogby poll found that 56 percent of Hispanics and 68 percent of African Americans say immigration is too high. Only 7 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of blacks said immigration was too low. While only 31 percent of Hispanics voted for Proposition 187 in California, 47 percent voted for the very similar Proposition 200 in Arizona in 2006. Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico — the first Hispanic woman nominated for governor by either party — takes a hard line against illegal immigration.
In addition to being more carefully written to withstand judicial and civil libertarian scrutiny, Proposition 200 benefited from a campaign that was more sensitive to Latinos than the Prop 187 juggernaut. Pro-enforcement Arizona legislator Russell Pearce emphasizes “illegal is a crime, not a race.” But when an immigration-related issue can be recast as a referendum on the acceptance of Hispanics in American society, it can galvanize Latinos. This may have already happened with Arizona. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 70 percent of Hispanics opposed the new law while the country as a whole favored it by 64 percent to 34 percent.
SOME CONSERVATIVES HOPE they can square this circle. A group of evangelical leaders including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, and Mat Staver of the Liberty Counsel endorsed what they called a “Just Assimilation Immigration Policy” that is “neither amnesty nor mass deportation” but “an earned pathway to citizenship.” The problem with this is that it is precisely the path to citizenship, rather than the payment of fines or meeting of other requirements, that many Americans — and most conservatives — define as amnesty.
Arizona is trying a different “third way” between amnesty and mass deportation. SB 1070 is just the latest statute attempting to make attrition through enforcement the official state policy. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies that champions this approach, offers a simple description: “Shrink the illegal population through consistent, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law.” This strategy would “combine an increase in conventional enforcement — arrests, prosecutions, deportations, asset seizures, etc. — with expanded use of verification of legal status at a variety of important points.”
The idea is to entice illegal immigrants to self-deport, reducing their numbers to a more manageable level without massively disrupting local economies that have grown dependent on their labor. Can it work, and at what cost? The people of Arizona are about to find out — if the Obama Justice Department will let them. Americans in the other 49 states will be watching closely. And so will politicians looking to cope with illegal immigration without angering a diverse electorate.
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H/T to National Review Online