The Return of Immigration As a Wedge Issue

New America Media, Commentary, Angelo Falcón Posted: Feb 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: Contrary to popular wisdom after the 2008 elections, immigration as a wedge issue can restore Republicans to power, says a new report from The American Cause. Political scientist Angelo Falcón disputes that but says it would be unwise to dismiss The American Cause as a fringe element, either. Falcón is president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), a policy center founded in 1982 in New York City that focuses on Latino policy issues. Immigration Matters reflects the views of leading immigration rights advocacy groups.

Pat and Bay Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, James Pinkerton and company seek to tell the Republican Party what they need to do to win back power in 2010: use immigration as a wedge issue. Through a 16-year-old outfit called The American Cause, founded by Pat Buchanan and friends, they are promoting “traditional American values” rooted in the “conservative principles of national sovereignty, economic patriotism, limited government, and individual freedom.” Hey, wait a minute, isn’t this why the Republicans lost the White House and Congress last year?

Well, they argue, that’s the Democrats and the left promoting one of those cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies (you know, when correlation does not imply causation), according to a new report, “Immigration and the 2008 Republican Defeat.” Written by The American Cause Executive Director Marcus Epstein (who also heads anti-immigration congressman Tom Tancredo’s Team America and is vice president of something modestly called Youth for Western Civilization), the report asserts that the immigration issue was, in fact, not detrimental to Republican candidates. It concludes that “immigration control could be the issue to bring the GOP back into the majority.”

Epstein reviews 27 congressional races in order to challenge as a propter hoc fallacy the conventional wisdom that Republicans who lost races were the anti-amnesty, border enforcement hardliners and the Democrats were comprehensive immigration reform advocates. The problem with his analysis is that with both Democrats and Republicans downplaying or strategically repositioning the issue of immigration, there is a certain vagueness in the positions taken by most candidates on this issue, as well as in the small number of cases he examines.

About all he documents is how both Republican and Democratic candidates are ideologically slippery when running for office. I kinda knew that before reading this report. In fact, he performed a service to progressives by clearly identifying unprincipled Democrats in Congress worth looking at closely on the issue of immigration. So that’s pretty helpful. Thanks, Marcus.

But the real question is: How seriously should progressives and immigrant advocates take these American Cause people? I would prefer to ignore them at this point and hope they just fade--or immigrate--away due to their own irrelevance. But it is probably more prudent not to ignore them.

The New York Times was alarmed enough about what these people represent to publish an editorial critical of the group titled, “The Nativists Are Restless,” (February 1, 2009), with some follow-ups on the Times’ blog pages. The editorial points out that U.S history teaches us that “racism has a nasty habit of never going away, no matter how much we may want it to, and thus the perpetual need for vigilance.”

I was shocked a couple of years ago when conservative commentator Linda Chavez wrote a column entitled, “Latino Fear and Loathing” (Townhall.com, May 25, 2007), in which she took many of her conservative and Republican friends to task for their anti-Latino attitudes clothed in more innocuous immigration-control language. She pointed out that, “we need to quit pretending that the ‘No Amnesty’ crowd is anything other than what it is: a tiny group of angry, frightened and prejudiced loudmouths back by political opportunists who exploit them.” Wow!

Within a few weeks, though, Chavez backed off, stating, “(o)n reflection, I went too far” (NationalReview.com June 11, 2007). But she expressed her personal frustration (“There are only so many times that you can be told to ‘go back to Mexico’ and far worse before your blood starts to boil”). She concluded that, “The immigration debate has stirred up some pretty ugly sentiments and conservatives need to be especially careful in this regard. We are, after all, the ones who argue for colorblind policies.”

This American Cause crowd apparently remains unconvinced and undeterred. But do they remain relevant? It is important for progressives not to underestimate their impact on the Republican and conservative agendas under an Obama Administration and a Democrati-controlled Congress. The main and most obvious reason is that with an economic crisis here and globally, the racist scapegoating that underlies their take on “traditional American values” will continue to have some currency. The right has also maintained an impressive media and policy advocacy infrastructure that is personified by Rush Limbaugh’s continued influence, to take but one example.

In the Latino community, there is also a need to closely watch a growing new conservative movement that had been fed by eight years of Republican dominance with a president who was trying to develop an “Hispanic strategy.” There are now conservative Latino policy centers, like The Latino Coalition, the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, the Congressional Hispanic Conference and others, which along with the first black chair of the Republican Party, could influence how the GOP and conservatives will address the immigration debate. With its dramatic population growth and diversity, as well as a growing middle class, the Latino community is becoming more ideologically diverse. Let’s see if Pat and Bay will offer them admission into American Cause or keep theirs a white-only club.

With Obama in the White House, hopes for a more sensible comprehensive approach to immigration reform are warranted. But as we have seen in his first few weeks in office, the need for vigilance and creative grassroots organizing is as important as ever. Si, se puede, but it ain’t automatic.

Related Articles:

Immigration Reform Under the Next U.S. President

Immigration issue Won't Die

Immigration Shaping Up as Wedge Issue




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User Comments


Nezzie on Feb 17, 2009 at 09:29:51 said:

I disagree with both of these above statements. Some one needs to do some homework.


Native American on Feb 17, 2009 at 06:07:34 said:

Daniel Griswold: Immigration law should reflect our dynamic labor market


Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. His writings on immigration can be found at www.freetrade.org; e-mail him at dgriswold@cato.org.

Among its many virtues, America is a nation where laws are generally reasonable, respected and impartially enforced. A glaring exception is immigration.

Today an estimated 12 million people live in the U.S. without authorization, 1.6 million in Texas alone, and that number grows every year. Many Americans understandably want the rule of law restored to a system where law-breaking has become the norm.

The fundamental choice before us is whether we redouble our efforts to enforce existing immigration law, whatever the cost, or whether we change the law to match the reality of a dynamic society and labor market.

Low-skilled immigrants cross the Mexican border illegally or overstay their visas for a simple reason: There are jobs waiting here for them to fill, especially in Texas and other, faster growing states. Each year our economy creates hundreds of thousands of net new jobs – in such sectors as retail, cleaning, food preparation, construction and tourism – that require only short-term, on-the-job training.

At the same time, the supply of Americans who have traditionally filled many of those jobs – those without a high school diploma – continues to shrink. Their numbers have declined by 4.6 million in the past decade, as the typical American worker becomes older and better educated.

Yet our system offers no legal channel for anywhere near a sufficient number of peaceful, hardworking immigrants to legally enter the United States even temporarily to fill this growing gap. The predictable result is illegal immigration

In response, we can spend billions more to beef up border patrols. We can erect hundreds of miles of ugly fence slicing through private property along the Rio Grande. We can raid more discount stores and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast. We can require all Americans to carry a national ID card and seek approval from a government computer before starting a new job.

Or we can change our immigration law to more closely conform to how millions of normal people actually live.

Crossing an international border to support your family and pursue dreams of a better life is not an inherently criminal act like rape or robbery. If it were, then most of us descend from criminals. As the people of Texas know well, the large majority of illegal immigrants are not bad people. They are people who value family, faith and hard work trying to live within a bad system.

When large numbers of otherwise decent people routinely violate a law, the law itself is probably the problem. To argue that illegal immigration is bad merely because it is illegal avoids the threshold question of whether we should prohibit this kind of immigration in the first place.

We've faced this choice on immigration before. In the early 1950s, federal agents were making a million arrests a year along the Mexican border. In response, Congress ramped up enforcement, but it also dramatically increased the number of visas available through the Bracero guest worker program. As a result, apprehensions at the border dropped 95 percent. By changing the law, we transformed an illegal inflow of workers into a legal flow.

For those workers already in the United States illegally, we can avoid "amnesty" and still offer a pathway out of the underground economy. Newly legalized workers can be assessed fines and back taxes and serve probation befitting the misdemeanor they've committed. They can be required to take their place at the back of the line should they eventually apply for permanent residency.

The fatal flaw of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was not that it offered legal status to workers already here but that it made no provision for future workers to enter legally.

Immigration is not the only area of American life where a misguided law has collided with reality. In the 1920s and '30s, Prohibition turned millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans into lawbreakers and spawned an underworld of moon-shining, boot-legging and related criminal activity. (Sound familiar?) We eventually made the right choice to tax and regulate alcohol rather than prohibit it.

In the 19th century, America's frontier was settled largely by illegal squatters. In his influential book on property rights, The Mystery of Capital, economist Hernando de Soto describes how these so-called extralegals began to farm, mine and otherwise improve land to which they did not have strict legal title. After failed attempts by the authorities to destroy their cabins and evict them, federal and state officials finally recognized reality, changed the laws, declared amnesty and issued legal documents conferring title to the land the settlers had improved.

As Mr. de Soto wisely concluded: "The law must be compatible with how people actually arrange their lives." That must be a guiding principle when Congress returns to the important task of fixing our immigration laws.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. His writings on immigration can be found at www.freetrade.org; e-mail him at dgriswold@cato.org.


Native American on Feb 17, 2009 at 06:07:28 said:

Daniel Griswold: Immigration law should reflect our dynamic labor market


Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. His writings on immigration can be found at www.freetrade.org; e-mail him at dgriswold@cato.org.

Among its many virtues, America is a nation where laws are generally reasonable, respected and impartially enforced. A glaring exception is immigration.

Today an estimated 12 million people live in the U.S. without authorization, 1.6 million in Texas alone, and that number grows every year. Many Americans understandably want the rule of law restored to a system where law-breaking has become the norm.

The fundamental choice before us is whether we redouble our efforts to enforce existing immigration law, whatever the cost, or whether we change the law to match the reality of a dynamic society and labor market.

Low-skilled immigrants cross the Mexican border illegally or overstay their visas for a simple reason: There are jobs waiting here for them to fill, especially in Texas and other, faster growing states. Each year our economy creates hundreds of thousands of net new jobs – in such sectors as retail, cleaning, food preparation, construction and tourism – that require only short-term, on-the-job training.

At the same time, the supply of Americans who have traditionally filled many of those jobs – those without a high school diploma – continues to shrink. Their numbers have declined by 4.6 million in the past decade, as the typical American worker becomes older and better educated.

Yet our system offers no legal channel for anywhere near a sufficient number of peaceful, hardworking immigrants to legally enter the United States even temporarily to fill this growing gap. The predictable result is illegal immigration

In response, we can spend billions more to beef up border patrols. We can erect hundreds of miles of ugly fence slicing through private property along the Rio Grande. We can raid more discount stores and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast. We can require all Americans to carry a national ID card and seek approval from a government computer before starting a new job.

Or we can change our immigration law to more closely conform to how millions of normal people actually live.

Crossing an international border to support your family and pursue dreams of a better life is not an inherently criminal act like rape or robbery. If it were, then most of us descend from criminals. As the people of Texas know well, the large majority of illegal immigrants are not bad people. They are people who value family, faith and hard work trying to live within a bad system.

When large numbers of otherwise decent people routinely violate a law, the law itself is probably the problem. To argue that illegal immigration is bad merely because it is illegal avoids the threshold question of whether we should prohibit this kind of immigration in the first place.

We've faced this choice on immigration before. In the early 1950s, federal agents were making a million arrests a year along the Mexican border. In response, Congress ramped up enforcement, but it also dramatically increased the number of visas available through the Bracero guest worker program. As a result, apprehensions at the border dropped 95 percent. By changing the law, we transformed an illegal inflow of workers into a legal flow.

For those workers already in the United States illegally, we can avoid "amnesty" and still offer a pathway out of the underground economy. Newly legalized workers can be assessed fines and back taxes and serve probation befitting the misdemeanor they've committed. They can be required to take their place at the back of the line should they eventually apply for permanent residency.

The fatal flaw of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was not that it offered legal status to workers already here but that it made no provision for future workers to enter legally.

Immigration is not the only area of American life where a misguided law has collided with reality. In the 1920s and '30s, Prohibition turned millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans into lawbreakers and spawned an underworld of moon-shining, boot-legging and related criminal activity. (Sound familiar?) We eventually made the right choice to tax and regulate alcohol rather than prohibit it.

In the 19th century, America's frontier was settled largely by illegal squatters. In his influential book on property rights, The Mystery of Capital, economist Hernando de Soto describes how these so-called extralegals began to farm, mine and otherwise improve land to which they did not have strict legal title. After failed attempts by the authorities to destroy their cabins and evict them, federal and state officials finally recognized reality, changed the laws, declared amnesty and issued legal documents conferring title to the land the settlers had improved.

As Mr. de Soto wisely concluded: "The law must be compatible with how people actually arrange their lives." That must be a guiding principle when Congress returns to the important task of fixing our immigration laws.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. His writings on immigration can be found at www.freetrade.org; e-mail him at dgriswold@cato.org.


Native American on Feb 17, 2009 at 06:06:23 said:

What the Buchanans do not say is that the Undocumented immigrants paying more taxes than you think!! And by hiding the TRUTH they think they will win? NO WAY>

Eight million Undocumented immigrants pay Social Security, Medicare and income taxes. Denying public services to people who pay their taxes is an affront to America’s bedrock belief in fairness. But many “pull-up-the-drawbridge” politicians want to do just that when it comes to illegal immigrants.

The fact that Undocumented immigrants pay taxes at all will come as news to many Americans. A stunning two thirds of Undocumented immigrants pay Medicare, Social Security and personal income taxes.

Yet, nativists like Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., have popularized the notion that illegal aliens are a colossal drain on the nation’s hospitals, schools and welfare programs — consuming services that they don’t pay for.

In reality, the 1996 welfare reform bill disqualified Undocumented immigrants from nearly all means tested government programs including food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare-funded hospitalization.

The only services that illegals can still get are emergency medical care and K-12 education. Nevertheless, Tancredo and his ilk pushed a bill through the House criminalizing all aid to illegal aliens — even private acts of charity by priests, nurses and social workers.

Potentially, any soup kitchen that offers so much as a free lunch to an illegal could face up to five years in prison and seizure of assets. The Senate bill that recently collapsed would have tempered these draconian measures against private aid.

But no one — Democrat or Republican — seems to oppose the idea of withholding public services. Earlier this year, Congress passed a law that requires everyone who gets Medicaid — the government-funded health care program for the poor — to offer proof of U.S. citizenship so we can avoid “theft of these benefits by illegal aliens,” as Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., puts it. But, immigrants aren’t flocking to the United States to mooch off the government.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, the 1996 welfare reform effort dramatically reduced the use of welfare by undocumented immigrant households, exactly as intended. And another vital thing happened in 1996: the Internal Revenue Service began issuing identification numbers to enable illegal immigrants who don’t have Social Security numbers to file taxes.

One might have imagined that those fearing deportation or confronting the prospect of paying for their safety net through their own meager wages would take a pass on the IRS’ scheme. Not so. Close to 8 million of the 12 million or so illegal aliens in the country today file personal income taxes using these numbers, contributing billions to federal coffers.

No doubt they hope that this will one day help them acquire legal status — a plaintive expression of their desire to play by the rules and come out of the shadows. What’s more, aliens who are not self-employed have Social Security and Medicare taxes automatically withheld from their paychecks.

Since undocumented workers have only fake numbers, they’ll never be able to collect the benefits these taxes are meant to pay for. Last year, the revenues from these fake numbers — that the Social Security administration stashes in the “earnings suspense file” — added up to 10 percent of the Social Security surplus.

The file is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year. Beyond federal taxes, all illegals automatically pay state sales taxes that contribute toward the upkeep of public facilities such as roads that they use, and property taxes through their rent that contribute toward the schooling of their children.

The non-partisan National Research Council found that when the taxes paid by the children of low-skilled immigrant families — most of whom are illegal — are factored in, they contribute on average $80,000 more to federal coffers than they consume. Yes, many illegal migrants impose a strain on border communities on whose doorstep they first arrive, broke and unemployed.

To solve this problem equitably, these communities ought to receive the surplus taxes that federal government collects from immigrants. But the real reason border communities are strained is the lack of a guest worker program.

Such a program would match willing workers with willing employers in advance so that they wouldn’t be stuck for long periods where they disembark while searching for jobs. The cost of undocumented aliens is an issue that immigrant bashers have created to whip up indignation against people they don’t want here in the first place.

With the Senate having just returned from yet another vacation and promising to revisit the stalled immigration bill, politicians ought to set the record straight: Illegals are not milking the government. If anything, it is the other way around.

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