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Crossing the Line

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/5/2006

Barring another devastating terrorist attack in the United States, it’s all but certain that immigration will be the predominant national issue in November’s midterm elections. President Bush’s prosecution of the Iraq war is increasingly unpopular and has contributed more than anything else to his poor approval ratings. Still, most Democratic leaders haven’t sufficiently engaged the electorate with a unified opposition stance.

Besides, unlike Vietnam, opposition to this war is more intellectual than emotional—aside from the reality that some Democrats simply despise Bush and would be against him even if Baghdad today were a fully functional city—mostly because there’s no draft. Obviously, the military’s presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan is very real to the families of those directly involved in the war, but for most Americans it’s more of an armchair debate, one that doesn’t directly affect their lives. That’s why anti-war demonstrations have been so sparsely attended.

The current congressional battle over illegal immigration, however, is one that invokes passion on both sides, especially in the border states where Mexicans slip into the country every day. It took the recent demonstration of 500,000 people in Los Angeles—the largest in that city’s history—and smaller rallies across the country to ignite an unruly debate not only in the media, which had largely ignored the festering issue, but also among the population at large.

Currently it’s the Republicans, fearful of an electoral nightmare, who have led the disgraceful demagoguery, particularly in the House, where a bill was passed last December that labels the approximately 11 million “illegals” as felons who should be deported. In addition, there’s the idea that a fence on the border between the United States and Mexico will magically make the problem disappear.

Typical of the GOP’s Nativist wing is California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who’s one of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo’s chief lieutenants in keeping America safe from Hispanics who are not only helping to galvanize the economy but also adding to the cultural diversity that’s defined the United States for more than 200 years. Rohrabacher is vehemently opposed to the compromise fashioned by senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy (along with Bush) that would grant illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, although first they’d have to pay a fine and back taxes. Rohrabacher is quoted in a March 31 New York Times article as saying, “Let the prisoners pick the fruits. We can do it without bringing in millions of foreigners.”

By contrast, McCain, whose admirable pro-immigration stance is risky given his presidential aspirations, said on March 31:

    Are we going to continue our rich tradition of hundreds of years of welcoming new blood and new vitality to our nation? Or are we going to adopt a protectionist, isolationist attitude and policies that are in betrayal of the very fundamentals of this great nation of ours, a beacon of hope and liberty and freedom throughout the world?

Democrats have been uncharacteristically clever, up to this point, on the immigration controversy, mostly keeping silent while their opponents engage in internecine warfare. An indication of how this issue is in such flux is that editorialists at liberal dailies such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Sun, and Los Angeles Times have joined with the economically conservative Wall Street Journal in denouncing the latter-day GOP “Know-Nothings.”

I suspect as the midterm elections approach that unanimity won’t hold. The first left-wing pundit to break ranks was the New York Times’ Paul Krugman. On March 31, Krugman opened his column with the kind of sentiment that could become common if Democrats can’t help themselves from engaging in a rhetorical fight with Republicans. He wrote:

    For now, at least, the immigration issue is mainly hurting the Republican Party, which is divided between those who want to expel immigrants and those who want to exploit them. The only thing the two factions seem to have in common is mean-spiritedness. But immigration remains a difficult issue for liberals.

Also on March 31, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean made the outrageous statement at an Oakland, Calif., union hall that Bush is to blame for the Tancredos in his party. Dean conveniently ignored Bush’s record: As governor of Texas he rejected California Gov. Pete Wilson’s divisive anti-immigration rhetoric. Subsequently, in his two presidential victories, Bush increased the number of Hispanics voting for Republicans. Nonetheless, Dean said:

    In 2006 it’s immigrants. That’s what their strategy is on the Republican side: divide people, scapegoat them, set them aside, point the finger at them. Well, that may be good for the Republican Party, but it’s bad for America, and we’re not going to do that.

The anti-immigration zealotry is bad for this country, and it’s only going to get worse when demagogues like Dean and Rohrabacher purposely try to confuse the public.

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