Primetime Hate Debate


If last night’s Republican debate in Florida is any indication, the fear mongering of Latino immigrants will play a major role in election ’08. While the polls show that a majority of Americans agree with proposals by most Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate to establish a path for immigrants in the U.S. illegally (provided that they clear certain hurdles), the surveys also demonstrate that the public wants the government to do more to secure the border and to oppose the awarding of driver’s licenses. ABC News has found that a whopping 54 percent of Americans believe that illegal immigrants do more to hurt the country than help. Only 34 percent say they do more to help, while 6 percent say they neither helped nor hurt and 7 percent are unsure.

Illegal Immigration and the GOP

With hostility towards illegal immigrants increasingly on the rise, politicians are falling over themselves to see who can sound the toughest and most draconian on the issue. So far, it’s been the Republican presidential contenders who have been harking on illegal immigration most. That’s not surprising, in light of the polling data: according to the Boston Globe, illegal immigration is the third most important issue to Republican voters after Iraq and the economy in New Hampshire. What’s more, more than half of Republican voters say that a candidate’s position on illegal immigration is "very important" to their vote.

There are very few voices of reason on the Republican side, with most candidates railing against "amnesty" and "sanctuary" cities. John McCain, who co-sponsored the Senate’s Immigration Reform Act of 2006 which provided a conditional path to legal status for some illegal immigrants, and Rudy Giuliani, who favors guest worker programs and a conditional path to legal status for illegal immigrants, are rare exceptions within the GOP field. But, even McCain and Giuliani favor the construction of a fence along the Mexican border.

Most of the other Republican candidates tend to drift far to the right of McCain and Giuliani. Tom Tancredo, for example, gets standing ovations from his supporters as he rails against illegal immigration. "We are destroying the concept of citizenship itself," he has said. "America, and indeed Western civilization, are in a crisis." Tancredo launched a TV ad warning that "spineless politicians" are letting terrorists into the country by not securing the borders. The ad ends with the sound of an explosion at a shopping mall.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney wants harsher punishment for employers who hire illegal immigrants and opposes proposed pathways to legal status for illegal immigrants. Ron Paul says officials must track and deport undocumented immigrants. In line with his libertarian philosophy, he opposes hospitals, schools, roads, and social services for illegal aliens and he would even move to end birthright citizenship.

The dilemma for the Republicans of course, is that in the course of bashing immigrants they may appear too rabid on the issue and turn off moderate voters and Latinos. But for the time being, they can’t help pandering to the base: polls indicate that Republican voters in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina hold strong negative feelings about the issue, as do voters in swing states like Ohio and Missouri. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 84 percent of Ohio voters opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

The Democrats and Illegal Immigration

Polling suggests that Democratic voters have far more conflicting views on illegal immigration, and respond that healthcare, the war in Iraq, and the economy are more important issues. However, even on the Democratic side illegal immigration’s profile is rising steadily: three in ten voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote, say that a candidate’s position on immigration is "very important." On the campaign trail, the candidates get sharp-edged questions on the issue, particularly in Iowa where an influx of Latino immigrants working at meatpacking plants has inflamed the public. "I’ll be in the middle of talking about the war and healthcare, and everybody’s cheering, and then some guy stands up in the back and says, ‘What are you going to do about the illegals?’" John Edwards has remarked.

For the Democrats, illegal immigration poses a thorny problem. On the one hand, Latino voters are growing in importance and the party would like to win Nevada and to flip Southwestern states from red to blue. What’s more, the liberal wing of the party would clearly like to see immigration reform. On the other hand, antagonizing the nativist constituency carries some political risk. This group is heterogeneous and includes independents, blue collar workers, rural folk, African Americans, and those with solely a high school education. The Democrats have opted for compromise: though they support increased border security, they also seek a conditional path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million migrants living in the U.S. illegally.

For the time being, campaign leaders seem to think that by not emphasizing illegal immigration, they may get a substantial percentage of the Latino vote back. Indeed, the Democrats would probably like to see the issue go away altogether. During a recent debate, Hilary Clinton refused to say whether she supported or opposed New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to extend driver’s licenses to illegal migrants. After the debate, Clinton was perceived as waffling, and her popularity dipped in the polls. She now says that she categorically rules out providing driver’s licenses to undocumented migrants, while Obama says yes with caveats and Edwards says no with more caveats.

How Did We Get Here?

Though the immigration debate has recently reared its ugly head with renewed force, it’s not as if nativism is a novel political development on the American scene. In the late 1790s, for example, nativism flourished as a reaction to an influx of political refugees from France and Ireland. Later, in the mid nineteenth century, nativists objected primarily to Roman Catholics, and especially Irish. The Know Nothing movement, formed in New York City, was based on a secret society. In order to become a member, one had to be twenty one, a Protestant, a believer in God, and willing to obey the dictates of the society without question. When asked if they knew anything about the society, members would respond that they "knew nothing about" it. In 1854, the nativists went public and launched their own American Party which was anti-Irish and campaigned for laws to require longer wait time between immigration and naturalization. Two years later, former President Millard Fillmore ran on the American Party ticket. The party was depicted in the 2002 film Gangs of New York; Daniel Day Lewis played the role of William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a fictionalized version of real-life Know Nothing leader William Poole. Though the American Party ultimately proved ephemeral, nativist sentiment continued to figure prominently in U.S. politics during the nineteenth century: Chinese, for example, were distrusted and even attacked by angry mobs in the west. More recently, fear of low-skilled workers has focused on Mexican and Central American migrants.

Lou Dobbs: Leading the Charge against Illegal Immigration

Currently, conservative pundits have revived nativism by pedaling stories about government benefits going to noncitizens. Leading the charge has been CNN’s Lou Dobbs, whose show, Lou Dobbs Tonight, attracts some 800,000 viewers per night. Dobbs, who frequently describes illegal immigration as an "invasion," has lifted CNN’s profile amongst the viewing public: his program is currently the second watched show after Larry King Live. Dobbs, according to 60 Minutes, has become a new kind of TV anchorman, less Walter Cronkite than Bill O’Reilly. Dobbs describes himself as an "independent populist" and claims that many immigrants are not assimilating as prior generations did. The pundit has been critical of demonstrations that fly the flags of other nations in the United States, stating that "I don’t think that we should have any flag flying in this country except the flag of the United States."

In Dobbs’ world, every single problem plaguing American society, from terrorism to education, seems to have something to do with illegal immigration. On one broadcast of his "Broken Border" series, he claimed that the public school systems were "losing their battles" as they had been "inundated with illegal immigration." Following a report on illegal immigrants carrying diseases into the U.S., one reporter for Lou Dobbs’ show told her boss that there were 7,000 cases of leprosy in the U.S. between 2002 and 2005. 60 Minutes, however, checked that figure with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and found that there had been 7,000 cases over thirty years, and not over the course of three years. A report from the U.S. government agency added that nobody knew how many of the cases involved illegal immigrants. Critics charge that Dobbs is a fear monger, and that the TV pundit seeks to plant the idea in his viewers’ minds that illegal aliens are bringing leprosy, crime, and all manner of other terrible things to the United States.

Lou Dobbs for President?

According to a recent article posted on Wall Street Journal Online, Lou Dobbs has even considered running for president. Friends of the TV pundit spin an unlikely scenario: if Hilary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani become the nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, and Michael Bloomberg enters the race as an independent, Dobbs could enter the race as a fourth party candidate. Dobbs could then capitalize on the public’s many doubts about the two party establishment candidates, while simultaneously painting Bloomberg as an east coast billionaire who is out of touch with the Heartland.

Though such a scenario is highly improbable, it is also true that the nativist constituency could prove important in election ’08. In the recent past Pat Buchanan captured the anti-immigrant vote, in 1992 and 1996. In the latter campaign, Buchanan remarked to his Iowa supporters, "Listen, José, we ain’t gonna let you in again!" (According to reports, Mitt Romney recently sat down with Buchanan to discuss the issue of illegal immigration). In 1992 Perot appealed to economic nationalism and white male swing voters, often Reagan Democrats, who were fearful of globalization. Perot, who garnered 19 million votes, appealed to his political constituency by deriding NAFTA. The trade agreement, the billionaire argued, would fail to halt illegal immigration as wages in the cheap maquiladora assembly plants would fail to compete with U.S. wages.

While it’s unclear where those ex-Buchanan voters (whose concerns echo those held by members of the American Party of the mid-nineteenth century) will go in election ’08, their votes may be easily snatched up by a shrewd campaign which capitalizes on xenophobia and fear.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and The Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave-Macmillan 2006) and the upcoming Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008).

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