Anti-Immigration: A Ticket to Nowhere

Republicans' anti-immigration movement cost them, even in Arizona

The GOP’s anti-immigration agenda was a big political loser in the midterm election. But by appointing Florida Senator Mel Martinez – a Cuban American who staunchly supports more liberal immigration policies – as the chair of the Republican National Committee, President Bush might have grasped that that beating up on illegals may never again be a political winner for the GOP.

A Democratic Congress offers Bush an opportunity to make amends with the Latino community – not to mention escape his lame-duck status – by a reviving his original, more enlightened approach to immigration reform.

Immigration bashers like Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo who remain in Congress will no doubt point to Arizona to argue that they are not a spent force. Voters there overwhelmingly approved four of the harshest anti-immigrant measures ever – ranging from requiring immigrants to learn English to denying illegal immigrants bail in felony cases and barring them from collecting punitive damages in civil cases.

But these measures represented not just anti-immigration sentiment, but anger against government inaction. As a border state, Arizona bears a disproportionate burden – both fiscally and culturally – of border-busting Mexicans. Yet the federal government has done precious little to offer these communities any financial relief or find a better way to regulate the flow of illegals.

It is not surprising then that Arizona residents vented their frustration at the polls. But what is surprising is that this anger did not protect the GOP’s immigration hawks. Of the 15 competitive gubernatorial and congressional races in which immigration was an issue, the GOP lost 13 – three of them in Arizona.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who favors a comprehensive approach to illegal immigration, was easily re-elected over her hawkish GOP challenger. Nor did her win reflect just the power of incumbency. J.D. Hayworth – a six-term Republican state representative and author of anti-immigration screed “Whatever it Takes” – lost a seat he had previously won by a 21-point margin to Democrat Harry Mitchell. Similarly, Randy Graf – an immigration foe vying for the seat being vacated by moderate Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe – lost big time to his Democratic challenger.

Indeed, before the election, Graf declared, “If this issue can’t be won in this district [by immigration hard-liners], the argument can be made that it can’t be won anywhere.” He is exactly right – and for reasons that he might not even fully understand himself.

Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan in his theory of public choice observed that though every citizen can vote in a democracy, this right is not exercised equally by all. Groups who stand to directly gain – or lose – from a particular candidate or issue have a far greater incentive than others to go to the polls. Furthermore, these groups vote in a block around a single issue, magnifying their effect in elections.

On the immigration issue, this dynamic played out by mobilizing the Latino community to come out and vote against restrictionist candidates. Indeed, Latino turnout was higher than the rest of the population – and 73 percent of it went to Democrats, compared to only 53 percent in 2004. Yet non-Latinos who favored tough border-control measures had many other issues on their minds and did not vote for the GOP in high enough numbers to counter-balance the Latino vote.

Of course, GOP restrictionists might argue that an immigration crack-down is necessary precisely to hold-down the Democratic-voting Latino population. But this would be a self-defeating strategy. Latinos comprise a sizeable majority in every state where immigration was a major issue. They make up 10.6 percent of the population in Connecticut, 28 percent in Arizona, and about 40 percent in California and Texas. That means that they already have the presence necessary to be an important swing vote even if another Latino was never allowed to set foot in this country.

Instead of alienating this community, President Bush needs to court it. And he can do that first and foremost by quietly killing the 700-mile fence that he signed into law to appease the nativists in his party before the elections. Then he can go to bat on behalf of a comprehensive immigration reform that includes opening legal avenues for unskilled Mexicans to live and work in this country. This will in one stroke cure the problem of illegal immigrants and make it a non-issue both for Latinos and non-Latinos.

Immigration bashing has always had a bad odor, but in the current electoral landscape, the GOP engages in it only at its peril. That’s the big lesson of the 2006 election.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Los Angeles. An archive of her work is here and Reason’s government reform research and commentary is here.