Key Senate races could turn on immigrant rights

NewsAnalysis

With precious little else to run on, the GOP has decided to base its midterm election campaign largely on the bogey of “illegal immigration” as a domestic equivalent to Bush’s pro-war and fear propaganda.

But there is no force that does not generate a counterforce. And the counterforce has been awesome. Immigrants and their allies have carried out demonstrations of unprecedented size. With new demonstrations scheduled for September and this week’s National Latino Congress in Los Angeles, there will be no letup in the immigrant rights pressure until Election Day.

One slogan has been “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Although undocumented immigrants can’t vote, naturalized citizens can, as can their U.S.-born co-workers, neighbors, relatives and friends.

If Republicans lose at least six seats in the Senate, their majority grip would slip out of their hands. The six Republican seats most in danger are Pennsylvania (Santorum), Montana (Burns), Missouri (Talent), Rhode Island (Chafee), Ohio (DeWine) and Tennessee (seat being vacated by Frist). Now Virginia (Allen) may be becoming competitive.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Senate Republicans are “more moderate” than the House ones on immigration. But many GOP candidates in these races have been using anti-immigrant demagogy to try to energize the right wing.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is one of the worst. He opposes legalization and favors harsh measures like HR 4437, the viciously anti-immigrant bill passed by the House in December. He has supported the town of Hazleton, Pa., for passing a law penalizing anybody who so much as sells a cup of coffee to someone who turns out to be “illegal.” His opponent, Democratic State Treasurer Bob Casey, takes a much better position.

GOP Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio is considered a “moderate” by some, but on the other hand he helped to sabotage Democratic efforts to have the Senate “compromise” bill cover all undocumented as eligible for legalization, as opposed to only some. His Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown, endorsed the aims of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride: a path to citizenship, family reunification, and rights at work and in the community.

For Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, anti-immigrant demagogy may end up backfiring to the point that his seat is jeopardized, and his presidential ambitions seriously dampened. Allen was considered a shoo-in for re-election after the popular former Democratic governor of Virginia, Mark Warner, decided not to run for the seat. The Democrats nominated newcomer Jim Webb, who has come out against the Iraq war.

Then Allen called one of Webb’s Asian American campaign workers a “macaca,” which is a kind of monkey, and told him sarcastically, “Welcome to America,” even though the man was born in Virginia. When this became big news, Allen tried to apologize but the cat was out of the bag: reporters went after his record on racial justice, revealing his penchant for Confederate and segregationist symbols.

Allen’s positions on immigration are hard-right: No legalization or amnesty, harsh repression, and denial of U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. That this may not be a winning strategy is indicated by last year’s gubernatorial election, where loudmouth anti-immigrant Republican Jerry Kilgore went down to defeat against moderate Democrat Tim Kaine. History may repeat with Allen this year.

Arizona’s Sen. John Kyl has been a moving spirit behind anti-immigrant legislation in the Senate. Thus votes for his Democratic opponent, Jim Pederson, who tends toward a comprehensive approach including legalization, will help the immigrant worker rights cause.

Democrats also have to defend seats that are not cinches for them in Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska, Washington and New Jersey. On the average, the Democratic candidates are more favorable to immigrant rights than the Republicans.

The Democratic candidates are not necessarily portraits of courage. Many of them have concluded that immigration is a “Republican issue” and that they had best avoid it. This is a dangerous tactic, especially when it leads them to fail to criticize the Bush administration’s attacks on immigrants.

But nevertheless, the defeat of anti-immigrant Republicans will encourage those who are cautiously positive on immigrant rights to be bolder, while serving as a sharp check against the entire anti-immigrant movement.