Immigration Issues: After Failure

Newt Gingrich isn't one to mince words -- particularly in the post-September 11 era, which so suits his penchant for whipping up hysteria. So it wasn't exactly a shock when the papers reported that he had worked up an audience by telling them how "sickened" he was that George W. Bush and Congress were taking a summer vacation "while young Americans are being massacred," and that he indignantly demanded that Bush call Congress back into a special session to prove "he is serious about winning the war here at home."

It was, in fact, a perfectly typical speech for the former speaker, essentially indistinguishable from every other fearmongering ripsnorter he's delivered in the past six years. Save for one thing: The massacred Americans Newt spoke of aren't buried in Basra, and the war at home isn't against terrorists, or even against defeatist liberals. It's against illegal immigrants -- at least one of whom (out of the country's estimated 12 million) is a suspect in a Newark murder, and thus fodder for Gingrich's political opportunism.

Gingrich is something of a Jedi master at sensing and exploiting the Republican base's ugliest instincts, and, as usual, he's pitch perfect. The failure of the immigration bill in Congress has given the flailing Republican Party one last issue with which to rouse its base: The legislation activated a large anti-immigrant bloc, whose primal scream, amplified into a Senate-shaking roar by conservative talk radio, doomed the bill. Moreover, this brand-new constituency, which in mere weeks transformed itself from a loose mass of isolated, angry citizens into a brutally effective movement, wasn't about to sacrifice its momentum. In the weeks since the immigration reform effort died, states and localities have come under -- and often buckled beneath -- intense pressure to pass ever more restrictionist measures, Republican presidential candidates have been forced into ever stronger pledges of xenophobia, and activists have sought, and received, the promise of a crackdown at the federal level. "When Congress failed to act earlier this summer to pass comprehensive immigration reform, people were worried that we were going to be stuck with the status quo," said Dan Restrepo, director of the Americas Project at the liberal Center for American Progress. "Would that we were!"

Instead, the issue has taken a turn for the ugly. The hopes for a comprehensive reform bill that would have created some solution, however imperfect, for the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants have been dashed, and the chances of reviving the legislation are small. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, put it most bluntly when he admitted that "there is no way this legislation is happening in the Democratic House, in the Democratic Senate, in the Democratic presidency, in the first term."

Though poll after poll shows strong majority support for a moderate solution, immigration is a classic intensity issue, wherein the small, committed minority can overcome the disengaged majority. "You have to accept the fact," sighed pollster Sergio Bendixen, who specializes in surveying the Hispanic population, "that the anti-immigrant movement is much, much bigger than the Hispanic electorate. Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of all American voters consider illegal immigration very important for their vote, and the Hispanic electorate, in the most optimistic estimates, is no more than 10 million."

Fifteen to 20 percent of voters isn't much, but the piteous Republican Party, having lost everyone else, can't forfeit this howling remnant of its base. Even so, this xenophobic backlash is not an issue the party's leadership wants. Making inroads among Hispanics was, after all, a priority for Karl Rove, who sought to construct a permanent Republican majority and couldn't afford to sacrifice the most rapidly growing group in America. Even after the 2006 elections, when the desperate Republicans sought to stave off the effects of a failing war and an indicted Tom DeLay by turning to immigrant-bashing, the White House fought to signal a softer side to Hispanics, elevating Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a bilingual Latino immigrant, to chair of the Republican National Committee, and pushing comprehensive reform legislation in Congress. Bush even suggested the bill's opponents "don't want to do what's right for America" and accused them of using "empty political rhetoric [and] trying to frighten our fellow citizens."

The will of the base, however, has overwhelmed the counsel of the tacticians. And the weakened Republican establishment is capitulating. John McCain, cosponsor of the comprehensive and humane McCain-Kennedy legislation, was flayed by primary voters for his position and is now sponsoring an enforcement-only bill in the Senate. The White House has announced a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigrants, which will range from increased border patrols to fines for employers who retain workers with unverified Social Security numbers. Once pro-immigrant Republicans were "supposed to be our best friends," says one staffer in the pro-immigrant movement. "And our people [Hispanics] know they're being betrayed."

The Hispanic community is most certainly noticing -- and what they hear isn't principled concern over illegal immigration. It's bigotry. "I've been trying to put my finger in the dam of Hispanics leaving the Republican Party, and I can't anymore," said Massey Villarreal, vice chairman of the U.S Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "I've run out of fingers." Anchors on Telemundo and Univision lead off, night after night, with coverage of raids and crackdowns against the Hispanic community, rendering their programs a sort of Lou Dobbs Tonight in reverse. DJs on the major Hispanic radio networks are calling for political action and reengagement among their listeners, exhorting those eligible for citizenship to take the oath and enter the political process.

Are these the seeds of a counter-backlash, rippling forth from the tens of millions of immigrants who don't like being demonized? It's possible. The collapse of the bill is making way for the emergence of a bold, pro-immigration movement. So long as the legislation lived, the groups working for it had to carefully protect the delicate bipartisan coalition necessary for its passage. That meant doing their best to avoid awakening the anti-immigrant bases of Republican senators. It meant staying quiet, and fighting this out in the halls of Congress rather than in the homes of the voters.

Now, the bill's failure has freed the pro-immigrant community from such strictures. "What we had," one staffer told me, "was a very professional, inside-the-beltway effort, and normally that would have been enough. But there was this tsunami of hate, and it wasn't." So what was once a Capitol Hill legislative strategy is slowly becoming a take-it-to-the-people political strategy to recapture, and reshape, the debate. "Now we're empowered to point out the bigotry," said the staffer. "We can point out what is underlying these fears."

In the near term, no one knows who gets the votes from this. The Hispanic community, which broke nearly 70 percent to 30 percent for the Democrats in 2006, will almost certainly turn out in larger numbers in 2008, and its increased presence in the pivotal states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida could swing the election to the Democrats. But whether this increased turnout will overwhelm that of the anti-immigrant voters is an open question. Either way, the battle has been joined. Republicans won't be able to abandon their base, and Democrats won't sacrifice their inroads among the Hispanic community.

"I think progressives will have to stand up and fight here," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the New Democrat Network, which has been the most aggressive institution urging the Democratic Party to court the Hispanic vote. "What's about to happen to Hispanics is unacceptable for any progressive in the United States."

Certainly, the Democrats' courtship of Hispanics is intensifying. The Democratic National Committee is preparing the largest Hispanic outreach program it has ever conducted, and the party is holding its convention in 35 percent Hispanic Denver. The immigrant community is suddenly aware that it has to fight to get Americans to understand that this is a battle for human equality. "We on the pro-immigration side are going to get good enough that we're going to get middle America very, very pissed," at anti-Hispanic intolerance, says the staffer. "This will be like the civil-rights movement, pitting normal people against racists." And against Newt Gingrich.