GOP anti-immigrant agitation backfires

Commentary

Since last December the Republican right has tried to use undocumented immigrants as a collective “Willie Horton” to distract voters’ attention from the massive failures of GOP policy, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, declining working-class living standards and the scandals about Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff.

So the viciously repressive HR 4437 was rammed through the House in December 2005 and no progressive legislation on immigration was allowed to advance. Instead, countless taxpayer dollars were wasted on bogus “field hearings” on immigration.

Over the protests of many sectors, legislation was passed to build a “fence” on the U.S.-Mexican border. President Bush did his bit by ratcheting up factory raids, arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Local politicians got into the act with mean spirited state and local laws aimed at making the lives of immigrants as miserable as possible.

But the trick didn’t work. The counter movement for immigrant rights it helped spark, including the massive marches, appears to have increased Latino, Asian American and other sectors’ voter registration and turnout, and the vast majority voted against the Republicans.

So a number of Republican politicians who had been most identified with strident anti-immigrant rhetoric went down to ignominious defeat. The seats of nine of the 104 members of the viciously anti-immigrant House Immigration Reform Caucus, the brainchild of Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), flipped from Republican to Democrat, including those of Charlie Bass (N.H.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Bob Beauprez (Colo.), Joel Hefley (Colo.), Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Jim Ryun (Kan.), John Sweeney (N.Y.) and Charles Taylor (Colo.).

Also in Arizona, Randy Graf, a member of the Minutemen anti-immigrant vigilante organization, was defeated by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who favors access to legal status for the undocumented. The seat had been held by moderate Republican Jim Kolbe, who refused to endorse Graf.

These seats contributed about one-third of the Democratic pick-ups in the House.

Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who had identified himself with the persecution of Latino immigrants by the small city of Hazleton, Pa., was handily defeated by Democrat Bob Casey. In Virginia, “Senator macaca” George Allen was defeated in a squeaker by a newcomer to the Democratic Party, Jim Webb. Webb opposes guest-worker programs, but is open to giving undocumented immigrants a crack at legalization and citizenship, and does not go around calling minority people monkeys.

The Democrats also made very major advances in gubernatorial and state legislative elections. These need to be analyzed in more detail to see what the impact of the uproar about immigration actually was. But it is clear that the Republican right gained little, if anything, with its scare tactics about a Mexican “reconquest” of the United States or the “contamination” of U.S. health and culture by foreigners.

In most, but not all, cases, victorious Democratic candidates had better positions on immigration. However, while the Republicans tried to make the election be about immigration, Democratic candidates, with exceptions, did not campaign on immigration or immigrant rights issues, and a few of them came out on the wrong side of it. Not all the anti-immigrant Republican candidates lost: Thelma Drake was re-elected in Virginia as was Brian Bilbray in California, and anti-immigrant extremist Peter Roskam defeated Democrat Tammy Duckworth for the 6th CD seat in Illinois, which is being vacated by Henry Hyde.

Also, several anti-immigrant ballot initiatives won in Arizona, including an English-only initiative that will cause lots of problems for people whose first language is not English.

Nevertheless, supporters of immigrant rights are in a much better position than we were a year ago. Committee chairmanships in both House and Senate will now be taken over by people much less hostile to immigrants that were the likes of Frist, Hastert and Sensenbrenner.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) will chair the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) will chair the Immigration Subcommittee, and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will chair the Senate Committee on the Judiciary; all are much more open to recognizing the rights of the undocumented than were their Republican predecessors.

The House Hispanic, Black and Progressive Caucuses all come out of the election with much more strength and influence, and all three are sympathetic to immigrant worker concerns. There will probably not be more significant anti-immigrant legislation. But the fact that Bush is still in the White House pushing for both repression and an anti-labor guest-worker program, and that the Democrats will not have a veto-proof majority and will only have a one-vote majority in the Senate, will still be an obstacle to be overcome by the immigrant rights movement. So let’s not put away our marching shoes.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist in northern Virginia.