Candidates Walk a Tightrope on Immigration
By MICHAEL LUO
Published: November 18, 2007
New York Times
The Republican presidential candidates talk about illegal immigration as if they were in an arms race on toughness. The Democratic candidates have begun to tread more warily on the issue, as their debate last week in Las Vegas showed, but they still favor the language of accommodation over alarm.
Concern About Illegal Immigration Each approach, political strategists and officials warn, could have costs next November. Pollsters on both sides agree there is widespread anxiety, even anger, about the impact of illegal immigration. But an increasingly influential Hispanic electorate could be turned off by a hard line from the party they turned to in increasing numbers in the last two presidential elections.
Much will depend, strategists say, on how the candidates balance their statements.
“A Republican who only talks border control or a Democrat who only talks about benefits and services for illegal immigrants are going to find themselves in a lot of trouble next fall,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator John McCain’s presidential bid in 2000.
Looking at the Republicans at this point, it is often hard to find much difference among most of the leading contenders. They sound just as tough as the candidate who has been the angriest on immigration, Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, whose shoestring campaign recently began to run a television commercial in Iowa declaring that Islamic terrorists roam free in the United States because of an unsecured border.
The Republicans have railed against “amnesty” and “sanctuary cities.” They have promised to build a fence on the Mexican border to keep “illegals” out.
“The ratcheting up of the language to win the Iowa caucuses may seem like the thing to do, but we’ll pay a price,” said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Weaver left in the summer as Mr. McCain’s candidacy stalled, in part because of fallout over his vocal support for an immigration bill in the Senate that would have toughened border security but also offered a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here. “We cannot be a white male cul-de-sac party and survive.”
Grass-roots outrage derailed the bipartisan compromise that Mr. McCain had backed in the Senate. He now says he got the message that the border must be secured first.
Democrats have dwelled less on the issue and are becoming increasingly cautious, especially after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s stumble in a debate two weeks ago as she tried to explain her position on whether illegal immigrants should be able to get a driver’s license, as had been proposed by New York’s governor, Eliot Spitzer.
Mr. Spitzer backed down from his proposal last week in the face of stiff opposition, but at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton’s chief rivals, Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards, both struggled to explain whether they supported the concept. Mr. Obama said yes, with caveats; Mr. Edwards said no, with more caveats.
Their thrashing about on the question reflects the growing concern among Democrats that Republicans might use the issue against them next November, painting them as soft on enforcement and accommodating of lawlessness.
Some polls show that the majority of Americans agree with proposals backed by most Democrats in the Senate, as well as some Republicans, to establish a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, provided they clear certain hurdles. But the surveys also show that most feel the country needs to do more to secure its borders and oppose awarding driver’s licenses.
An ABC News poll conducted in September found that 54 percent of Americans believed that illegal immigrants do more to hurt the country than help; 34 percent said they do more to help; 6 percent said they neither help nor hurt; 7 percent were unsure.
“While agreeing with us on policy, people are nevertheless extraordinarily angry,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “The tone of the Democrats consistently fails to reflect that anger. In that sense, we’re out of sync with the public.”
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, compared voter sentiment to the growing desire even among Democrats in the early 1990s for an overhaul of the welfare system, pointing to exasperation about illegal immigration especially among certain groups — those with only a high school education, African-Americans and people in rural areas.
Many Democrats point to the Republican Party’s precipitous slide in California after Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election in 1994 as proof of the cost of a harsh tone toward immigrants. Mr. Wilson backed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that barred certain social services, health care and public education for illegal immigrants. It was approved by voters but later overturned by the courts.
Democrats argue that Mr. Wilson’s support for the measure ultimately led Hispanics to come out in droves against Republicans.
But Mr. Schnur, who worked for Mr. Wilson, said Republicans struggled not just because of their harsh stance but also because of other issues, like abortion and the environment.
“Hispanic backlash is only one element in a pretty complicated political question,” said Mr. Schnur, who pointed out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, won in 2003 campaigning against driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. A sizable percentage of Hispanics also voted for him, or a fellow Republican, Tom McClintock, over Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is Hispanic. Perhaps recognizing the need to temper his comments, Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate who is increasingly using immigration to go after his rivals for the Republican nomination, often hastens to add, after a weighted speech about “sanctuary cities” and “amnesty,” that he has no problem with “legal” immigrants.
One of those rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as mayor of New York offered a more accommodating tone toward illegal immigrants, has said that once the border is secure, those who are productive citizens and have not committed crimes should get a chance at citizenship.
Nevertheless, the sound bites on the trail are dominated by denunciations. Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, has coupled his plans for border enforcement with a call for English to be made the country’s official language. Republican pollsters argue that Hispanics are hardly monolithic as a group and have nuanced views on immigration, as well as other issues, that could put them in line with the party.
“This idea that all Hispanics are focused on immigration as the most important issue for them is like saying all women only care about abortion,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who is working for Mr. Thompson’s campaign.
But some leading Republicans, including Ken Mehlman, the former national party chairman, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, a Cuban-American who recently stepped down as the party’s general chairman, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, have warned about the harsh tone in their party.
Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post recently that the electoral math made it shortsighted for the Republicans to use immigration as a “weapon.”
“At least five swing states that Bush carried in 2004 are rich in Hispanic voters — Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida,” he said. “Bush won Nevada by just over 20,000 votes. A substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats in these states could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans.”
Florida is a particularly good example of how complicated the issue can be. The more liberal non-Cuban Hispanics now outnumber the influential Cuban-Americans there, but even the traditionally conservative Cubans, who largely supported the Senate measure, could abandon Republicans if they are perceived as overloading on anti-immigration bombast.
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, has marshaled survey data to show the potential for a momentous shift in party affiliation, noting that in 2000 and 2004, Mr. Bush worked hard to reach out to Hispanics, pushing up the Republican percentage of their vote to 40 percent in 2004 from 21 percent in 1996.
But in the 2006 midterm elections, after Republicans began taking a more confrontational stance toward illegal immigrants, their share of the Hispanic vote slipped to 30 percent.
“Getting on the wrong side of a demographic trend, like the growing Hispanic electorate, can make a political party a minority party for a long time,” Mr. Rosenberg said. Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of voters last year.
Those calling for Republicans to moderate their language point to past losses, like Pat Buchanan’s runs for the presidency in 1992 and 1996, which were heavy on anti-immigrant talk. More recently, they said, J. D. Hayworth, a hard-line incumbent Republican representative in Arizona, lost his race in 2006, as did Randy Graf, a member of the border-enforcing Minuteman group, who also ran in Arizona.
“In the past it’s always been fool’s gold,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative organization, who worked on behalf of the bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate.
But the Republican candidates face a conundrum. Polls show that the Republican voters in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina clearly harbor strong negative feelings about the issue, as do voters in the swing states Ohio and Missouri. A Quinnipiac University poll last week, for example, found that 84 percent of Ohio voters opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Consider a recent forum for Mr. Thompson at a retirement community in Bluffton, S.C. Four out of six questions from the audience were on the topic. Most were similar in tone to a comment hurled by one woman, who described herself as a “ ‘Law and Order’ freak”: “If you go to KFC, unless you call out a number or something, they don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Anna Nunez and
La Nueva Raza News