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The Immigration Trap

The issue that could send Hillary to the White House.

By 1.30.07

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This article appears in the new February issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

WHEN HILLARY CLINTON'S HUSBAND was elected president in 1992 with just 43 percent of the popular vote, many analysts believed that he owed his victory to the nutty Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who did well among middle-class and wealthy white voters who typically voted Republican. The biggest challenge Hillary faces in winning the presidency in her own right is that much of the public wouldn't consider voting for her, making it difficult to attract more than 50 percent of the vote. Thus, her best hope may be to follow in the footsteps of her husband and divide and conquer.

No issue remains more divisive to Republicans than immigration. It divides economic conservatives and populists, Beltway policymakers and grassroots activists, as well as urban conservatives and those living along the border. The split within the conservative movement was reinforced by the starkly different interpretations that were offered for how the immigration issue played out in the recent midterm elections.

One side argues that the elections proved that the immigration issue, which had been trumpeted by some as the potential savior of the Republican Party, was a dud. Despite blanket news coverage of immigration protests last spring, by the time the fall came around, the issue wasn't on the radar in most congressional races. Even in those races in which immigration was prominent, the results were not encouraging for proponents of tougher measures against illegal immigrants. In Arizona, both J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf ran as hardliners on illegal immigration and lost. In a column published after the election, Linda Chavez wrote, "Now that the people have spoken, maybe the Congress will finally listen and pass comprehensive immigration reform." President Bush, in press conferences and interviews, has repeatedly said that he hopes to work with the new Democratic Congress to do precisely that.

Not so fast, says Chris Simcox, president of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the grassroots group that gained notoriety for organizing volunteers to help patrol the border. Simcox disputes the conventional wisdom that interpreted the election results to mean that Americans rejected a get-tough approach to illegal immigration. "That's a completely biased spin," he says, and offers a competing analysis. He argues that Hayworth lost because of his links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Graf fared poorly because he didn't receive help from the Republican establishment, which supported his more moderate opponent in the primary. He also notes that when Arizona voters were able to vote specifically on the immigration issue, they overwhelmingly approved three anti-illegal immigration ballot measures, and another one to establish English as the state's official language.

NO MATTER WHICH NARRATIVE is accurate, it's clear that deep fissures remain on the immigration issue, which could mean big trouble for Republicans in the next presidential election. Of the three top contenders for the Republican nomination (John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney), none is considered acceptable to anti-illegal immigration hawks. Even Sam Brownback, who is presenting himself as the only true conservative in the field, came out in favor of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, drawing the ire of those who view such a policy as rewarding criminal behavior. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is a hardliner on illegal immigration, has said he intends to run, and Rep. Tom Tancredo, who has become the most prominent spokesman for tougher measures to stop illegal immigration, told TAS he was "seriously considering" seeking the nomination. But with Hunter and Tancredo long shots to win the nomination, chances are anti-illegal immigration activists will be left without a candidate in either major party. The question is whether they will stay home, or even defect to a third party in large enough numbers to swing the election, especially if that means risking another Clinton presidency.

"The Republicans always have their bogeyman, and this time it will be a bogeywoman," said James Clymer, the chairman of the Constitution Party, which hopes to woo conservative defectors from the Republican Party, especially on the immigration issue. Clymer said that the party expects to be on the ballot in 46 to 50 states in 2008. The list of possible Constitution Party nominees includes former Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes, Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist, and Jerome Corsi, who co-authored a book on immigration with Gilchrist and also co-authored Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. Tancredo and Rep. Ron Paul would also be welcomed into the party, but neither of them is expected to leave the Republican Party.

"The American people aren't being suckered into going with one party or another anymore and I think this will be a key litmus test and a real indication, this next presidential election, of just how willing voters are to go away from both parties," Simcox said. In particular, he viewed a McCain candidacy as the most likely to cause anti-illegal immigration voters to abandon the Republican Party, because of McCain's co-sponsorship, with Ted Kennedy, of a comprehensive immigration reform package. "We'll do everything we can to ensure that McCain doesn't get to the White House."

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, not to be confused with Gilchrist's Minuteman Project, has 61 chapters in 29 states, 9,000 registered volunteers, and an e-mail list of 1.3 million. In addition, the group started a political action committee last year that raised nearly $1,000,000; 10 of the 18 candidates it supported won.

Richard Shaftan, who runs the PAC, argues that even the threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency may not be enough to dissuade disgruntled conservatives from bolting the Republican Party. "If you have someone like McCain, the chances of a viable third party candidacy would be a very real thing, because to a lot of conservatives it would make no difference if it was McCain or Hillary Clinton, only McCain would be more dangerous because he'd be a Republican pushing all of this nutty stuff."

It's difficult to quantify the potential appeal of a third party movement fueled by the immigration issue, because polling results on immigration depend on the way the question is asked and how people define "amnesty" or "tough border security." A Tarrance Group poll conducted days before the midterm elections found that by a margin of 48 percent to 46 percent, Americans agreed with the statement: "Any program in which one who is currently an illegal immigrant could earn the right to citizenship is amnesty." But when given further details, 68 percent of Americans thought "A program in which an illegal immigrant could earn citizenship over many years by paying a fine, working, paying taxes, living crime free and learning English isn't amnesty and is a reasonable way to deal with 12 million illegal immigrants here now." Incidentally, that's a position along the lines of the McCain-Kennedy bill that angered many grassroots conservatives. The same poll found that going into the elections, 11 percent of Americans identified illegal immigration as their most important issue.

HOWEVER, A THIRD PARTY CANDIDATE would not have to garner Perot's 19 percent to make a difference in the outcome of the election. In 2000, Ralph Nader captured less than 3 percent of the popular vote nationally, but his 97,000 votes in Florida were more than enough to cost Al Gore the election. And we might still be looking at a Republican-controlled Senate today were it not for Stan Jones, the Libertarian candidate in Montana who may have siphoned off enough votes from incumbent Republican Conrad Burns to elect the Democratic challenger, Jon Tester. In 2008, the Republican nominee could be especially vulnerable in potential swing states where the immigration issue is prominent such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona (if the nominee isn't McCain, since it's his home state).

The potential impact of the immigration issue will depend largely on what happens legislatively this year.

"I don't think there will be a wholesale rush to the left on this, and by that I mean a massive amnesty or guest worker program that will be put through with one big bill," Tancredo said. Instead, he predicts an "erosion" of some of the measures that were passed last year. For instance, the new Congress probably won't adequately fund the construction of a 700-mile border fence that was authorized in a law signed by President Bush weeks before the elections. In addition to tougher border enforcement, Tancredo advocates imposing penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, which, he argues, would cause a natural exodus of immigrants back to their own country because they could no longer find work in America.

IF PRESIDENT BUSH FOLLOWS through on his vows to work with the Democratic Congress on bipartisan legislation, it could trigger one of two reactions. On the one hand, it could highlight the fact that the two-party system has failed those who support tougher measures against illegal immigration. "If they passed amnesty, that will be the catalyst for millions more people going away from both parties and going with a third party movement," Simcox said.

But Chuck Muth, who deals with the immigration issue as president of the grassroots organization Citizen Outreach, thinks that if any legislation is passed, the immigration issue will become less important because voters will determine that the issue is being dealt with, as has been the case with past legislation.

"It takes the issue off the table for a lot of people," Muth said. "A lot of people were worked up [last] year, but when Congress passed the legislation that authorized building the wall on the border, we saw the intensity of that issue drop tremendously even though there wasn't money, even though it wasn't built....We saw activism in that issue drop in our direct mail."

In the next year, the leading Republican presidential candidates will do their best to placate the conservative base on the immigration issue. McCain will likely emphasize the hoops that illegal immigrants would have to go through to obtain citizenship under his reform plan. In a speech in New Hampshire a few days before the midterm elections, Giuliani gave a preview of how he may handle criticisms that he was lax on immigration as mayor. He argued that his policies as mayor were based on the fact that he took over a city that already had an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants and emphasized that many of the same tactics he employed to cut crime in New York could be applied to improving border security (such as increasing law enforcement personnel and making better use of technology). Romney, meanwhile, in one of his last acts as governor, authorized state troopers to detain illegal immigrants -- a move that drew kudos from Pat Buchanan.

But if none of these gestures is enough to satisfy anti-illegal immigration hardliners, Hillary Clinton may be able to return to the White House -- even if most people don't like her.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein