December 14, 2007

Immigration Shaping Up as Wedge Issue

By Elena Shore
New America Media

Editor’s Note: Republicans, once a divided house on immigration, are trying to turn it into an electoral wedge issue in 2008 while nervous Democrats in front-line states are lining up behind enforcement-only measures. Immigration experts participating in New America Media’s Access Washington teleconference said 2008 will see some nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SAN FRANCISCO — Republicans are attempting to turn immigration into a wedge issue in the 2008 presidential elections. But their move to the right could cost them votes from the fastest growing voter bloc in the country: immigrant and Latino voters, according to experts on Access Washington, a New America Media-sponsored conference call with ethnic media.

“Immigration is emerging as an issue that’s going to be hotly debated in the 2008 election,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, and will be “front-and-center in congressional races, presidential races and local races.”

Republicans are using a hard line on immigration to turn out their base, while Democrats – who tend to support some form of legalization and protection for families – are according to Sharry “uncertain and frightened,” unwilling to say too much for fear of losing swing voters.

When it comes to the topic of immigration, says Angela Kelley, director of the American Immigration Law Foundation’s Immigration Policy Center, “Democrats are uncomfortable, clearing their throats, with beads of sweat.”

“But,” she adds, “they’re better than Republicans” when it comes to immigration.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee whose star has been rising in the polls has introduced a new immigration proposal that requires all 12 million undocumented to leave the country within 120 days. John McCain has also adopted a harder line on immigration. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are trying so hard to compete to see who is tougher on immigration that Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, well-known for his tough stance on illegal immigration, jokingly described them as trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.”

Giuliani, however, has hinted that he may come out for an earned legalization program – something that could risk support from hard-line conservatives but would likely bolster his image among Latino voters.

The level of importance voters place on immigration seems to divide along party lines. In Republican polls, immigration ranks number one among voters, while the Iraq war ranks number four or five. Democratic polls show the reverse: the Iraq war and the economy are a high priority for voters, with immigration ranking as less important.

In the last year, Republicans have moved to the right on immigration, according to Kelley. Senate Republicans who supported comprehensive immigration reform, including John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Arlen Specter, have moved their support to enforcement-only measures.

Over in the House, Kelley says, Democrats are leading efforts to pass enforcement-only bills.

The bill to watch, according to Kelley, is H.R. 4088, the Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act (SAVE) introduced by freshman Democrat Heath Shuler of North Carolina, and backed by Republican Brian Bilbray of California. This bill would expand the employer verification system to include six million employers, increase the Border Patrol, expand detention centers, bring back the stalled no-match letters, and encourage state and local police to enforce federal immigration law.

The Shuler bill has 122 co-sponsors, including many Demo-crats. These include so-called “blue dog,” or conservative Democrats, as well as a number of “frontline members,” Democrats who serve in districts with a high number of swing voters, many of whom won their seats in 2006 by slim margins.

“There is a fight among Democrats over which way to go,” says Sharry. While some see the Shuler bill as a way to show Republicans that Democrats are taking action, others say Democrats would be “stupid” to lead an enforcement-only bill.

Sharry, among the critics of such bills, calls them “not only repressive, but bad politics.” Republicans’ embrace of an anti-immigrant stance could backfire — just as Calif. Governor Pete Wilson’s 1994 anti-immigration ballot measure Proposition 187 drove Latinos to citizenship and voting booths in California and turned California into a reliably Democratic state.

In a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, more Latino registered voters aligned themselves with the Democratic Party than did just two years ago, with many citing Republican policies as harmful to their communities. Fifty-seven percent said they favor the Democratic Party, compared with only 23 percent for the Republican Party. The 34-percentage point Democratic advantage grew from a 21-point difference in July 2006.

If the GOP’s anti-immigration rhetoric galvanizes Latinos to go to the polls, it could determine the election. Latino voters could turn at least four undecided states into Democratic “blue” states: New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, as well as Florida – thus making a Republican presidential victory impossible.

“If immigration becomes a wedge issue that works, we’re going to be set back even further in 2009,” Sharry predicts. If it backfires, he says, that could increase support for comprehensive immigration reform in the future.

But this is now further away than ever before. “We’re going to need to go through one or two more election cycles before we’re at that point again,” when there is enough support to pass comprehensive immigration reform, says Kelley.

In the meantime, Sharry says, things are going to get uglier.

“Get ready for some of the nastiest anti-immigrant ads you will ever see in your life.”

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