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Posted by on Apr 12, 2006 in At TMV | 18 comments

Is The Immigration Issue Becoming A Political Boomerang For The GOP?

There are signs now that the immigration issue, once seen by some GOP strategists as a good “wedge issue” to garner votes in the 2006 mid-term elections is becoming more of a political boomerang.

The Washington Post reports:

In the wake of this week’s massive demonstrations, many House Republicans are worried that a tough anti-illegal-immigration bill they thought would please their political base has earned them little benefit while becoming a lightning rod for the fast-growing national movement for immigrant rights.

In reality, it’s too soon to definitively judge who’s going to be hurt by this (there could be a backlash if demonstrations get ugly) but all signs points to the fact that the GOP is divided on this issue, the issue is accentuating the party’s divisions — and right now the issue looks like it’s going to hurt it the most:

Yesterday, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) issued a joint statement seeking to deflect blame for the harshest provisions of the House bill toward the Democrats, who they said showed a lack of compassion. “It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony,” Hastert and Frist said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) fired back that “there’s no running away from the fact that the Republican House passed a bill and Senator Frist offered one that criminalizes immigrants.”

Indeed, if you read the news stories on the history of this bill, no matter what your position is on immigration reform or increased border security, it’s clear that the most punitive measures have come from the Republicans — not the Democrats. Or, rather, from the Republican House, which essentially gave its own party’s President the back of its hand on the immigration issue.

House Democrats acknowledged they helped block Republican efforts on the floor last December to soften the Republican-crafted section declaring illegal immigrants to be felons, but they said ultimate responsibility for the bill rests with the Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly for its passage.

“The Democrats were not going to do anything to make it easier for Republicans to pass an atrocious bill,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

What is truly incredible is how this issue has bitten the GOP in the proverbial butt.
One of the main strands of George Bush’s political career has been his relationship with Hispanic voters. Some Democrats may pooh-pooh the fact that Bush was highly popular with Hispanics as governor of Texas — but he WAS. And once he got to Washington, he and his political crew made no secret of the fact that their long range goal was not just to become competitive with the Democrats for Hispanic votes, but to make the up-and-coming Hispanic population a reliable segment of the GOP’s new coalition.

Those plans seem to be in a shambles now. The Post again:

“There was political calculation that they could make this the wedge issue of 2006 and 2008, but it’s not playing out that way,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “This has galvanized and energized the Latino community like no other issue I have seen in two decades, and that’s going to have electoral consequences.”

Republicans say they could accept that sentiment if they believed they had won political points from the GOP’s restive base. But for all the negatives, they don’t have many positives to show for their efforts.

“From the standpoint of those who would applaud the House’s stand, I’d say we have not gotten sufficient credit,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a reliable supporter of House leaders. “I’m somewhat distressed that they have not gotten word of what we’ve done.”

So what has been accomplished so far? Immigration, a festering issue that has been dealt with in dribs and drabs for many years, with high-sounding proposals and programs that proved to be ineffectual, has now exploded on the American scene.

Strong passions have been unleashed on both sides (those who clamor for tough border enforcement versus those who want to legalize in some way some who are already here) but so far the legislative process seems incapable of harnessing the creative aspects of passion and filtering it into a workable solution.

The Post notes that all the blame can’t be laid at the door of the Republicans — because, in effect, Democrats held them to their original plan in the House:

House GOP leaders had rushed lawmakers back to Washington for a rare December session to vote on the immigration measure, hoping to give their members an accomplishment to brag about over a long winter recess. But it was the deft maneuvering of Democrats that preserved the bill’s most infamous provision, declaring illegal immigrants felons, and that provision has helped turn the bill into a political albatross for some Republicans, Democrats say.

…”It was an ugly bill in most respects, the felony stuff, the wall and no amendments,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who tried to add a guest-worker provision but was not allowed a vote. “The leadership saw this more as a statement than a policy, but I think in the end we would have been better off had we been more deliberative.”

With so little debate, media coverage was minimal, and what coverage there was got little notice in the holiday bustle, Republicans say.

“We’re victims of our own success,” said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).

Sensenbrenner’s bill is getting attention now, not so much from Republican base voters but from Spanish-language radio shows and Latino activists who have made it the focus of marches that have drawn more than a million protesters. One sign Monday on the Mall read “Sense, not Sensenbrenner.”

But, the Post notes, it can’t all be blamed on the Democrats: only 8 Democrats voted with the Republicans on it. Also: since its passage many conservatives, including talk radio hosts, have hailed the House bill as a great bill that provides what’s needed to control the borders.

Republicans apparently have a short memory on this issue: they need to go back and look at what happened to the GOP in California when then-Governor Pete Wilson backed 1994’s Proposition 187 ballot measure clamping down on illegal immigrants. The measure won (but later got tied up in court) and the GOP was decimated politically in California as Hispanic voters fled en masse to the Democratic party. (Wilson went from 47 percent of the Hispanic vote to 25 percent).

CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, when asked about the present immigration debate’s impact on the House elections, had this to say:

Well, there are really two prevailing sentiments on the immigration issue, on the illegal immigration issue. People want tough border controls. They want to stop what they definitely believe is an out-of-control flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, and they’re going to hold Congress and politicians responsible. They want something done about that, but they also take a fairly sympathetic view, as that poll suggests, towards illegal immigrants who are here. They endorse in that poll, and many other polls, a path to citizenship with, of course, some very tough requirements.

So how will that factor into the election? That’s the problem. Members of Congress aren’t sure. This has suddenly, with these demonstrations, become a two-sided issue. If they look too lenient and talk about amnesty, they could pay a price for a lot of voters who are very angry over the idea that illegal immigrants should be treated leniently, should be given citizenship. They call that amnesty. On the other hand, there was a constituency newly mobilized out here in the streets that indicated they’re going to show up at the polls. They never have in the past. So politicians won’t know what to do.

So immigration is proving to be the ultimate curse for the GOP leadership:

They thought it would be black and white “wedge issue,” that could give the party easy political returns, and help define the Democrats.

But now they find their party is itself being defined and the issue isn’t black and white — but is a thorny issue with “nuance.”

FOOTNOTE: This is a highly emotional issue on both sides so we encourage you to leave your comments, thoughts and ideas on solutions in our comments section, no matter what you believe.

UPDATE: Republican leaders are considering major changes to the immigration bill.

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  • Pyst

    The day I can legally go to Mexico and set up shop without letting them know about it, then I might not think illegal aliens aren’t breaking a law. Untill then they are in effect, felons.

    Democrats aren’t scoring any points with the public, other than the usual one world types. And the republicans are splitting themselves with the majority of americans that support actual illegal immigration laws on the books, and the pro-corporate types that want to exploint the cheap labour, and union busting advantages from cheap labour.

    This is a push with minimal gain either way, since illegal aliens can’t vote. Atleast they can’t vote yet, but I’m sure that’s the next obsticle some politico will push for.

  • Larime The Gimp

    This is hurting the GOP, big time.

    The vast majority of people protesting and demonstrating are legal immigrants and US Naturals of Latino heritage, NOT illegals.

    They vote, and in recent times HAD been voting more and more Republican, based on faith and values.

    Like what happened in California in 94, they just blew all that work to attract Latino voters.

  • TLB

    First, I’d suggest watching your sources.

    The Washington Post has published an impressive series of pro-illegal immigration propaganda. They strongly support illegal immigration.

    And, Raul Grijalva is a proud former member of the racial separatist group MEChA.

    The bit about 187 is what supporters of illegal immigration want you to believe. The actual truth of the matter is a bit different. Note that AZ’s Prop 200 (very similar to 187) got around 46% of the Hispanic vote (most of whom are Mexican-Americans). And, note that a vast majority of Texans are opposed to illegal immigration.

    I’d also suggest looking at the Rasmussen and Survey USA polls. Those present quite a different picture.

    One of the issues for the Republicans is that their corrupt members racialize and demagogue this issue just as good as the Democrats do. No names, but I’m thinking of some of the opponents of Rep. Tom Tancredo. Instead of fighting their corrupt lies with reason and the truth, many other Republicans give in.

    If the GOP wants the (largely mythical) “Hispanic vote”, then they should go for the half or so who don’t support illegal immigration. The Dems can have the part of the “Hispanic vote” who support open borders, as well as the illegal aliens.

    This site also shouldn’t believe the lies promulgated by the MSM concerning who was marching. While many were indeed citizens or legal immigrants, many were citizens of other countries. And, the legislation these marches are protesting for or against only deal with illegal immigration. So, these are not “immigration marches”. They’re marches demanding rights for foreign citizens to which they aren’t entitled.

  • Pete Wilson won by large numbers after passing prop 187 (and he won with numbers of hispanic voters similar to other republicans)
    Arnold who voted for 187 was elected governor by large numbers of hispanic voters.

    the truth of the matter is the negative is far less then percieved.

  • Paul Williams

    The american people has many virtues, among them justice and forgiviness. That sense of justice tells us that it is not fair with us americans to have our borders open without control as they are. This high sense of justice also tells us that people that fled from poverty willing to work hard to better help their families deserve our understanding. This undertanding is well represented in the Kennedy bill that provides penalties to be paid for that trespassing, that addresses the needs of tougher border security and what is more important it provides that all this contingent of immigrants contributes formally to our economy paying taxes, paying to learn our language and our history. The bill also does not forget the homeland security, requiring every immigrant to undergo a criminal background check.

    If they can do that they were not granted amnesty, they earned their right to be here by paying their dues.

  • LaurenceB

    I think people would be surprised to know how many non-illegals marched. My wife and I (both citizens) joined the march in Atlanta.

    Consider: We listen about half the time to spanish-language radio. Now remember – this radio station has an audience of both illegal aliens and legal latinos. Here’s the thing: I have yet to hear even one caller to the station who opposed the marches – and the DJs aren’t even pretending to be impartial. They are calling for latinos to join the march, and they are loudly condemning HR 4437. Anyone who thinks this will have no effect on Latino voters is just wrong, plain and simple.

  • Of course because call in radio shows, especially ones who organized the protests would never go ahead and shut out callers who disagree with them

  • Robert Bell

    Joe: You say “What is truly incredible is how this issue has bitten the GOP in the proverbial butt.” but I’m thinking you predicted exactly this sort of risk awhile back. Maybe I’m wrong but perhaps you should be saying “I told you so”.

  • LaurenceB

    You’re missing the point. Assume for a moment that your conspiracy theory is correct – that the radio station is screening listeners who object to the protests – that doesn’t change the fact that 100% of what is being broadcast to hispanic listeners is extremely favorable towards the marches. There is no way that that would not have an effect, even if we assume (and I don’t) that your theory is correct. In the hispanic (both illegal and legal) world, the Republicans are taking a beating – trust me on this.

  • Ryan

    This high sense of justice also tells us that people that fled from poverty willing to work hard to better help their families deserve our understanding.

    This same high sense of justice tells us that those who broke our laws should not be treated better than those who are following our laws. Well, it tells some of us that at least.

    What about all the people who wanted to flee poverty but have waited sometimes decades to do so legally? What about all the people who are still waiting? Why should these people who break our laws get to jump to the front of the line and stay while those who are following our laws have to continue to live in poverty while they wait for their chance to come here legally?

  • Ryan


    I think you’re missing the point. How often do you hear dissenting views on Rush Limbaugh? Why? Three reasons. First, for the most part, only people who agree with Rush listen to him. Second, people who do listen but disagree with him don’t want to call because they know how they will be treated. Third, if dissenters do call, they can easily be screened before getting on the air.

    The same can happen with these radio stations. Even if (I know these aren’t the numbers but I’m being a bit dramatic to show how it works) 95% of Hispanics disagree with the radio station, that leaves probably 5-10% that listen and would you think more than 2-3% would bother to call in anyway? A very small percentage of the population is representated by the callers to any given radio show and, when the show clearly expresses a specific point of view, self-selection tends to ensure that the callers express the same point of view even if that view is a minority opinion throughout the general population.

  • LaurenceB


    I think I’ll just give up on this one. (sigh)

    You may indeed be correct that there is a huge contingent of latinos who are being screened by the radio stations, or who are completely unaffected by what they hear all day long on the radio, or who tune their radio to the Country and Western station instead.

    But I don’t think so. And I have some experience from which to speak.

    In my opinion, Joe is absolutely right on this one. The Republicans (who have done well with Latinos lately) are losing big time on this issue. Anyone who has strong ties to the Latino community can see this.

  • Joe

    As far as saying “I told you so”: I look at each issue as it comes up. I don’t actually look at many of my old posts since I try to look at every issue with new evidence, but review and remember key aspects of it from before. So I really don’t try to do any “continuity” on my posts, although I do try to do chain link posts in case people want to read the previous ones. I really don’t do a post and then try to make sure I highlight how I might have been right or downplay how I might have been wrong. Each time I look at a subject I read a bunch of things (sometimes more than other) then when I start to write step back and give it my shot based on what’s before me. So I’m sure there are lots of instances where I could say I told you so — but many others where I couldn’t say it! On this issue as on others, I think the GOP’s problem is overreaching or trying to take positions that some realize won’t go through but are partially symbolic. The problem is, in this political climate overreaching loses you support (a polarized electorate) and you will be held to your sybmolic positions which it sounds like is what the Democrats did in the House when the GOP then tried to backtrack. A key factor in this is: yes, Bush has talked about immigration. But he has not issued a very strong, detailed argument about what he wants to see and why. Is that because he has no views? Or doesn’t want to upset the delicate situation in his party? Or because he doesn’t mind the messages some of the stances are sending out? If he likes them, why not embrace them? If he doesn’t, then why not take a strong stand against them? If he uses the “bully pulpit” on the war in speech after speech, why isn’t he outlining in very specific terms what he wants to see and why?

  • gwangung

    And, Raul Grijalva is a proud former member of the racial separatist group MEChA.

    Hmm. Given my dealings with MEChA, who’ve not been particularly separatist when I’ve worked with them, I’m not sure how much credibility to give your views. It’s akin to describing someone as a card carrying member of the ACLU.

  • TLB

    In my opinion, Joe is absolutely right on this one. The Republicans (who have done well with Latinos lately) are losing big time on this issue. Anyone who has strong ties to the Latino community can see this.

    LaurenceB: could you please detail exactly what the Latino community wants each year for the next decade or so? Would we need to legalize everyone here, and then allow all their relatives to come here legally? And, how many relatives of relatives are there who we would also have to grant legal status to?

    Please give the numbers that the Republicans have to admit in order to get the “Hispanic vote”.

    gwangung: the current mayor of Los Angeles – a former MEChA leader – was forced to renounce that group’s goals just before he was elected. “Of course I don’t support their views” he said. (Whether he means it is highly doubtful considering his recent actions).

    Now, who should we trust when trying to understand that organization? You, or a former MEChA leader?

  • LaurenceB


    This is just my opinion, but here goes:

    Ironically, to get the “Hispanic Vote”, the Republicans didn’t really need to do anything. As latinos become more mainstream, they become more conservative, and more Republican. Many latinos are evangelical Christians. All the Republicans had to do was not be antagonistic – much as McCain and the Bush brothers have preached for some time. But they have failed – and spectacularly so.

  • Laurence B:

    Here is my experience (your mileage may vary)

    Latino’s who were born in the US or second generation and up Latino’s tend to be against these shenanigins of a protest and against illegals.

    That number goes higher when you deal with folks who did the whole proper immigration channels.

    First Generation hispanics and immigrant generation hispanics (especially those who did a little bit of river crossing themselves) are more likely to be sympathetic.

    Now. The news came out a while ago that TV and Radio personalities on the spanish language media have been working to organize their communities for these protests. Their are a lot of good and strong buisness reasons for them to do so and to not allow differing points of view. If they can be seen to “rally the troops” it is a powerful appeal to advertisers (amongst other things) at their ability to reach the audience

    then we look at the role some of the Unions have played in herding people into here. this was done by unions that have worked to unionize more hispanics (legal and illegal) this is their ability to get “street cred”

    its grass roots in the trenches politics pure and simple.


    I think Bush has been mushy on the details because he knows that its going to be difficult to get a package he wants out of congress so he is freeing up the boys on the hill to get the project done.

    And again I’ve yet to see a case that is good that going anti-illegal immigrant turns against you in the polls.

  • TLB

    All the Republicans had to do was not be antagonistic – much as McCain and the Bush brothers have preached for some time. But they have failed – and spectacularly so.

    Since I can’t think of instances of Republican leaders being anti-Hispanic, you’re basically equating controlling our borders with being anti-Hispanic. Therefore, once must assume that in order to be pro-Hispanic, one must avoid immigration enforcement. Which, of course, describes the Bush administration quite nicely.

    TITLE: The Immigration Factor
    BLOG NAME: ***Dave Does the Blog
    I’m very conflicted over the whole immigration issue, what to do with illegals, etc. There are too many approaches to the problem — idealistic, pragmatic, historical, economical, ethical, etc. –…

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