GOP Contenders Flee Bush on Immigration
photo credit: Lauren Burke, wdcpix
Immigration was to be the signature issue for George W. Bush in his efforts to create a political realignment. Where others had failed, he would cut the Gordian knot. Bush spoke some Spanish, had part-Mexican nephews, and was friends with Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico.
If it all worked, Mexico would be drawn closer into the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. businesses would have new markets and a dependable labor supply, and the Republicans would make long-lasting inroads among Latino voters. Bush would leave a legacy of internationalism, statesmanship and political acumen.
Then 9/11 happened, followed by homeland security and orange alerts. A border stretching from sea to sea became a liability, and people with foreign accents turned into suspects to be profiled. The feel-good immigration reform fell by the wayside.
After eight years in office, Bush could leave empty-handed. What do the Republican candidates vying to succeed him say?
Having created a vision of Barbarians at the Gate, the Republican candidates all agree that the first step must be to build a wall. In addition, they all stand for tough regulation and enforcement, including mass deportations.
Their positions are nuanced by assurances that “we are a nation of immigrants,” and “our only quarrel is with dangerous outlaws who don’t speak English.” These qualifiers, however, are barely heard amid the din of the presidential campaign. Now, with the Nevada caucus on Saturday, the race enters a state with substantial Latino population.
Certainly, up until now, the competition among the Republican candidates has been about who takes the hardest line on immigrants, though some reject “amnesty” but favor legalization under another name.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani were friendlier to immigrants before experiencing conversions on the road to what they hope is the White House. Much of the primary’s fire has focused on the three men’s allegedly inconsistent positions. Fred Thompson and Ron Paul are ready to do battle as well.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), however, has a different position. He supported Bush’s immigration reform policies in the past, and one reason he fell in the polls for much of last year was his stand on this. But even he is now resigned to focusing on the fence at the border.
It was Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), a onetime presidential candidate who has already withdrawn from the race, who led the charge against immigrants and set his party’s agenda with a series of over-the-top concerns like “whether we will survive” “a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation.” One of his campaign videos proclaimed: “Pushing Drugs. Raping Kids. Destroying Lives. The Consequences of Open Borders.”
Tancredo demonstrated that immigration resonated with the electorate. As Congress debated reform bills last summer, talk radio hosts raised the alarm. The bill was defeated in Congress, though Bush lobbied hard to get it through. As the electoral campaign drew near, mainstream Republicans came more and more to sound like Tancredo.
The underlying message is now one of fear: fear of terrorists infiltrating the soft underbelly of the nation, fear of losing one’s job, fear of an onslaught of people with different language, traditions and skin tone, fear of crime.
In 2001, when Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, his administration sought to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented and opposed a bill that required proof of citizenship to vote in the state. He supported higher-education benefits for the children of illegal immigrants, and in 2005 criticized a federal raid in his state that resulted in 107 out of 119 immigrants at an Arkansas poultry processor leaving the country or being deported.
He has defended these positions as based on compassion and common sense. He says he would allow immigrants to register and leave the country, in order to later return.
Despite that record, in November Huckabee told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he was stronger because he had a degree in theology:
In fact I think I’m stronger than most people because I truly understand the nature of the war that we are in with Islamo fascism. These are people that want to kill us. It’s a theocratic war. And I don’t know if anybody fully understands that. I’m the only guy on that stage with a theology degree. I think I understand it really well. And know the threat of it is absolutely overwhelming to us. As a president, nobody’s going to be stronger on building border security, not having amnesty, no sanctuary cities, having a process in place that forces a process that is legal. When it comes to national security, I understand that the threat that we face is not about our grandchildren having better homes and better cars, it’s about whether they’re going to have a breath and a pulse.”
As Huckabee began to take the lead in Iowa, he was running a TV ad that featured Chuck Norris, the conservative action star of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger,” about a martial-arts expert turned law enforcer. “My plan to secure the border?” Huckabee said on the ad, “Two words: Chuck Norris.”
The message was clear: Huck and Chuck were ready to karate-chop the bandidos back across the border.
Romney has twice had a problem with undocumented workers doing landscaping at his house. But he stays on the attack, charging that Huckabee, McCain and Giuliani are responsible for “sanctuary policies that led to less secure borders and more illegal immigration.”
A Romney TV ad in New Hampshire said, “McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant stay in America permanently.” It added that McCain “even voted to allow illegal immigrants to collect Social Security.”
In a slap at Huckabee, the voice-over continued: “Mitt Romney said ‘No’ to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. ‘No’ to tuition breaks for illegal immigrants, and he authorized his state police to enforce federal immigration law.” The authorization for state troopers came at the very end of his term as governor and never took practical effect.
To the GOP base, Giuliani suffers from having governed a polyglot and multinational city. In this job, Giuliani did things like call immigration “the single most important reason for American greatness.” In the presidential campaign, he responded to Romney’s “sanctuary city” charge—that as mayor he turned a blind eye to illegal immigrants in New York—by accusing Romney of running a “sanctuary mansion.”
Campaigning in New Hampshire, about as far from Mexico as any state except Alaska and Hawaii, Giuliani hewed close to the border fence, like his competitors. “You need security at the border, a fence, a technological fence to stop people from coming in before they can be illegal,” he asserted.
“Down the road,” he said, “if they want to become citizens…they should have to read English, write English and speak English.” That last was a freebie: naturalization rules have long required, with few exceptions, that applicants for citizenship display an ability to read, write, and speak ordinary English. It reflects, however, that Giuliani agrees to normalization based on paying fines and learning English.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TE) claims the award for consistency. At a December meeting with radio talk show hosts to address illegal immigration, Thompson accused the other candidates of waffling on border security. “Just about every one of them,” he said, “has had different positions in the past than they have today—except me.”
Thompson has suggested that the immigration reform bill Ronald Reagan signed in 1986 is responsible for today’s security threats. “Twelve million illegal immigrants later,” Thomspon said, “we are now living in a nation that is beset by people who are suicidal maniacs and want to kill countless innocent men, women and children around the world.” He opposes “amnesty” in any form, but he has voted in favor of visas for farm and skilled workers.
McCain joined President Bush in calling for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. But adverse reaction to the reform bills led McCain to focus on border security using “walls in urban areas, through vehicle barriers, with cameras and sensors.”
That does not mean, however, that McCain has abandoned the concept of a pathway to citizenship. Disagreeing with the tone adopted by his fellow Republicans, he says: “We need to sit down and understand that we have to secure the borders first, but we also have to address the issue in a more civil way.”
On his Web site, Paul sums up the Republican message of border security against terrorist threats and freeloading alien hordes: