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Immigrant Bashing By Immigrants

The GOP's ethnic candidates won by embracing a restrictionist agenda in the midterm elections.

Shikha Dalmia
November 9, 2010

If this election proves anything, it is that immigrant bashing is not a white-only sport. Non-whites can play it just as well. Advocates of liberal immigration policies, therefore, can’t count on the coming end of white domination to automatically propel this country in their direction. They have to keep making their case to the American public regardless of its hue—brown, black, or Avatar blue.

Despite the Republican sweep, Latino advocacy groups are trying to spin this election as an object demonstration of Hispanic strength. How? High Latino turnout, they maintain, effectively created a firewall in the Southwest ensuring Republican losses in Nevada, California and Colorado and preventing them from gaining majority control of the Senate. But this line of reasoning confuses the sauce for the whole enchilada.

It is true that had it not been for the Latino vote in Nevada, Senate Speaker Harry Reid might well have been toast. He played his cards brilliantly with the community. He proposed the DREAM Act, which would have opened up legal avenues for illegal minors to gain permanent residency in the country. But he ensured that it didn’t pass so that he could blame “evil Republicans.” And his opponent, Sharon Angle, performed her part beautifully, running vicious ads depicting Mexicans surreptitiously streaming through the border and threatening American wages, jobs and even Social Security. The upshot was that Latinos came out in record numbers with 90 percent of them voting for Reid, contributing to his 5 percentage-point win over Angle who only a few weeks ago seemed solidly ahead.

In California, where Democrats won both the gubernatorial and Senate races, Latinos played an equally significant role. Over 85 percent of them voted Democratic, giving Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer a convincing edge over the Republicans, both of whom embraced a restrictionist agenda. Meg Whitman, the Republican contender for governor, lost Latinos when she declared that it’d be alright with her if her illegal housekeeper, who had been in her employ for nine years, was deported. Meanwhile, Boxer’s opponent Carly Fiornia supported Arizona’s draconian law requiring immigrants to carry their papers at all times, hugely irritating Hispanic voters.

And the king of immigrant bashers, Tom Tancredo, whose restrictionism is too extreme even for the GOP, got a humiliating walloping in Colorado’s gubernatorial race where he was running as an independent. But the real Hispanic clout was felt in the state’s Senate race in which the Tea Party candidate Ken Buck lost to Democrat Michael Bennet in a nail-bitter. Buck was by no means half-bad on immigration, but Bennet was better and got a whopping 81 percent of the Latino vote that might well have put him over the top.

All of this is prompting dire warnings by Latino groups (who held a teleconference Wednesday to discuss the election results) that, over the long run, immigrant bashing will prove to be a losing strategy for Republicans. If current trends continue, the Pew Research Center projects, white share of the population will drop from 67 percent in 2005 to 47 percent in 2050. As this happens, Republicans will have to either win an ever-greater share of the white population or peel away minority sub-populations, something that will be hard to do if they don’t change course now.

But all of this assumes that today’s minorities will be tomorrow’s immigration advocates. However, this election casts severe doubts on that assumption. Indeed, one of the hugely under-reported stories of this election is that Republicans fielded far more minority candidates than Democrats—and they won by touting a restrictionist agenda, proof positive that skin color—and even immigration status—are not always correlated with enlightened immigration views.

Consider, Florida’s Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed Republican for Senate. After initially issuing a statement on immigration that would have warmed the heart of the Statue of Liberty, this Cuban American did a complete flip-flop, positioning himself on the restrictionist-right of both his white opponents. Not only did he eventually endorse the Arizona law after criticizing it for racial profiling, he also backed away from the DREAM Act, noting that it is “gonna feel weird” to deport minor undocumented kids but America needs “an immigration policy that works”—whatever that means!

But Palin-backed Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh migrants from India, didn’t even bother to pay lip service to the plight of undocumented workers who have no legal way to permanently live and work in the country. She embraced the Arizona law right off the bat, even boasting on the campaign trail about co-sponsoring legislation as state legislator that “entirely matched the state of Arizona.”

But the worst of the GOP’s ethnic stars from the standpoint of immigration reform are New Mexico’s Susana Martinez and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, both Hispanics who won the governorship. Even though New Mexico has a history of welcoming Mexican immigrants, Martinez was so unrelenting in her opposition to them that she even forced her (white) Democratic opponent to harden her stance. She opposed “amnesty” for undocumented aliens, pledged to revoke their driver’s licenses and ban them from college scholarships. And she endorsed Arizona’s “your papers please” law. Sandoval, a Tea Party darling, wasn’t quite as unflinching as Martinez, but he too ultimately praised the Arizona law and adopted a far harsher stance toward Hispanic immigrants.

The lesson for immigration advocates in all this is that hostility to immigration does not stem solely from xenophobia that shifting demographics will someday cure. It is that anti-immigration sentiment is driven by economic and other fears that have to be addressed anew for every generation regardless of its ethnic make-up.

This shouldn’t be surprising. As with trade, the benefits of immigration are enormous but not obvious. Without constant reminding, they tend to get lost—including to immigrants themselves. What seems natural to most people is Malthusianism, the view that a country’s resources are finite. Therefore, the more people you allow in, the less there is to go around.  The idea that immigrants actually expand the economic pie and therefore increase job opportunities and raise real wages is counter-intuitive to say the least.

Indeed, if immigrants could be automatically counted on to make the case for more open policies then this land of immigrants would not be building billion-dollar border fences right now, it’d be rolling out the red carpet. It’d see an uninterrupted progressive trend toward ever-increasing openness. That, however, is far from the case. America’s attitudes toward immigrants have ebbed and flowed over the course of its history. Till the early 20th century, this country allowed virtually unfettered immigration from anywhere. But then it went into a restrictionist phase in 1924, implementing national origin quotas that almost completely slammed the door shut on some countries, only to scrap them in mid-Century.

What all this shows is that immigration advocates can’t advance their cause by simply scaring Republicans about the impending Hispanic backlash. They have to convince the broader American public; constantly nurture a pro-immigrant zeitgeist with arguments and evidence. Unless they do that, rather than Republicans moving in their direction, it is entirely possible that Democrats will move in the restrictionist direction—as they have already been doing. Open immigration was, is and will remain a hard slog no matter who lives in America: whites or non-whites.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a Forbes columnist. This column originally appeared at Forbes. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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