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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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