Wednesday, October 05, 2005

'West Wing' to Test Market Immigration for 2008

Apparently on this Sunday’s episode of The West Wing, Senator Arnold Vinick, the Republican nominee for president (played by Alan Alda) will be confronting Congressman Matt Santos, the Democratic nominee (played by Jimmy Smits) on the issue of immigration. Santos’ inability to respond is complicated by the fact that Santos is a Latino, and for Latinos especially, the issues swirling around immigration are anything but simple.

It could be an instance of “art anticipating life.” Immigration could very well be one of the key “sleeper” issues of the 2008 race.

The U.S. currently accepts approximately 1 million legal immigrants and about 400,000 illegal immigrants each year. These numbers are not insignificant – they drive population growth in the U.S. more than any other factor, with the result that if present trends continue, the population of the U.S. is likely to be around 400 million by 2050.

The power of immigration reform as an issue derives from its ability to blow away bold ideological lines. It is the type of emotionally-charged issue that divides right from right and left from left. A few stereotypes may illustrate the point:
The Xenophobic Right: There has been a small but vocal class of conservative that has always argued for harsh restrictions on immigration, only thinly veiling its contempt for non-Protestant Western Europeans, from the Know-Nothings onward.

The Chamber of Commerce: Big business has always valued cheap labor, and immigrants, whether legal or excused illegal, tend to provide it in big numbers.

Old Liberalism: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The old liberal guard believes strongly in the U.S. as a magnet for the oppressed around the world, and in multi-culturalism as a desirable aim.

The Eco-centric Left: “We live in a world of limited resources, and while we like to think of ourselves as invincible, the U.S. cannot withstand this rate of population growth for long.”

Populists always seem to thrive in a transcendent ideological meta-universe – but protectionist voices from both the right and the left have been heard to chant of late, “Stop letting in people who take jobs away from Americans,” which in some quarters can sound a bit like “Quit sending in all the foreign scab labor and defeating union strength even more.”

Classic liberals and big industry would seem to share some common ground as “open border supporters,” creating a fat, moderate middle-ground that should eclipse the extremes – the “hard-liners.” In 2008, however, that fat middle-ground may be compromised by the existence of two other circumstances – a continued decline in manufacturing jobs in the U.S., and the long shadow of 9/11. Such circumstances may, in fact, be responsible for awakening a sleeping giant.

Recent polls have suggested that the number of people who would like to see legal immigration reduced from current levels is climbing, with older Americans (those who typically vote in the highest concentrations) taking the hardest line against both legal and illegal immigration. (See the Hamilton College Immigration Survey, 2003, and the RoperASW Poll for Negative Population Growth, 2003). Much of the underlying polling suggests that post-9/11 security fears are driving public opinion in this direction.

Matt Santos’ ambivalence on the immigration issue in The West Wing reflects a divide among Latinos in the real world. The recent Pew Hispanic Center Poll finds that 34% of Latinos who were born in the U.S. believe that illegal immigrants hurt the economy (compared to 15% of foreign-born Latinos), and that only 55% of U.S.-born Latinos agree that illegal immigrants help the economy (compared to 76% of foreign-born Latinos). The Pew Poll summarizes: “Although an overwhelming majority of Hispanics express positive attitudes about immigrants, relatively few Hispanics favor increasing the flow of legal immigration from Latin America and a significant minority, concentrated among native-born Latinos, is concerned that unauthorized migrants are hurting the economy” -- suggesting that sticking to an “open borders” policy is not a slam dunk when it comes to wooing likely Latino voters.

The first and perhaps most interesting test on immigration views will no doubt arise in the Republican Party, where President Bush has taken a number of “open border” stances, including a proposal to provide legal status to 8 million illegal immigrants as “temporary workers.”

Where do some of the likely Republican candidates stand?

In George Allen’s home state of Virginia, immigration has been brought to the fore by Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, who strongly denounced a tax-supported hiring center for day laborers, many of whom are assumed to be illegal aliens -- an opportunistic response to the rapid growth in immigrants in Northern Virginia. Democratic candidate Tim Kaine has called the hiring center a local matter, but suggests in a more measured way that the federal government is not doing its job in securing the borders. Kilgore is currently leading in the polls. Allen himself has been a “Chamber of Commerce” supporter of immigration and foreign workers, voting in favor of and co-sponsoring bills aimed at increasing foreign workers in the U.S., while supporting some border patrol augmentations and denying amnesty to illegal agricultural workers. While he is often acclaimed as the ideological heir-apparent to President Bush, it will be interesting to see if Allen’s Senate re-election run in 2006 will be affected by the recent dialogue on immigration reform within Virginia.

John McCain, whose home state is of course a border state, is currently co-sponsoring a bill with Ted Kennedy called the “Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act,” providing for the acceptance of 400,000 foreign workers in the U.S. each year, calling for specific protocols for dealing with illegal aliens (steep fines, followed by background checks, passage of an English exam and then amnesty), and stiffer punishment for employers who hire undocumented aliens. Although hard-liners are denouncing the bill as weak on border control, the move represents McCain’s effort to get in front on an issue that has plagued him to some degree within his own state and the Arizona Republican Party.

Prior to 9/11, Rudolph Giuliani was an “open border” politician in the classic liberal tradition, even going so far as mayor of New York City to sue the federal government to halt the practice of turning in illegal immigrants who seek government services such as police protection, hospital care and public education. Although it is an emotional issue for him, Giuliani is unlikely to want to damage his standing as a “homeland security” icon by making “open borders” a priority. If he enjoys front-runner status at any time during the primary campaign, watch his opponents go after him on this issue.

Massachusetts was the only state to lose population in 2004, although immigrants settling in Massachusetts kept the state from experiencing a decline in population for each of the previous four years. Mitt Romney has adopted several measures to ease transitions for foreign-born residents, including increasing state adult basic education funding for non-English speakers. Although he has gone on record stating he desires more immigrants to move to Massachusetts, he states that he is for “less illegal immigration” and that he recognizes the serious issues faced by state governments in California and Arizona, which will allow him to adopt some hard-line positions, if he chooses.

Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Immigration, although a conservative, is perhaps the most "open" of any of these candidates on immigration. Possessed of an almost uniformly “open border” voting record, Brownback states that “the country grows on immigration,” describing it as essential to restoring vitality to de-populated areas of the U.S. He has backed plans to provide individual states with the authority to sponsor various types of immigrants including physicians, registered nurses and investors, and believes that the U.S. should be accepting a greater number of refugees, stating that U.S. refugee policy has not treated Africans fairly.

Although most of the likely candidates fall into the fat, though perhaps shrinking, moderate middle of this issue, one can easily imagine that immigration reform will become a flanking issue for independents and conservatives within the party, giving the opportunity for a trailing candidate to make hay at the expense of a front-runner.

It will be interesting to see how each of the Republican candidates plays his or her immigration cards in preparation for such flanking maneuvers as the 2008 race develops.
For further analysis, and the Democratic side of things, see "Democrats gain edge on border security" (Arizona Republic, 8/18/2005).

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