Lessons From the Immigration Debacle

Now that the immigration bill has finally died its slow and much-deserved death, it’s an appropriate time to consider what lessons can be learned and what the episode portends for a Republican Party in disarray.   

Above all, the defeat of the Senate’s immigration bill-a de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants that did virtually nothing to address the threats to our national security that our porous borders have created-was a victory for average Americans over the Washington, D.C. establishment.

The details of the bill’s collapse are telling. Between Tuesday and Thursday of last week, 14 senators changed their minds and voted for cloture, voting in effect to kill the legislation.  

How did things unravel so quickly?  

Perhaps New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, one of the fourtee n who originally supported the bill but ended up voting against it, put it best when he said, “I was getting hammered here at home” over his support for the bill.  Even more poignantly, Ohio Senator George Voinovich, who had previously defiantly promised that he wouldn’t let “those people” -his constituents-intimidate him into opposing the legislation, fell in line and voted “no” in the end.  

But the bill’s demise was hardly partisan.  Few Democrats were excited about the bill, and, as the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes has pointed out, all five Democrats running for reelection in red states in 2008 voted against it.    

It seems the D.C. establishment woke up last Thursday morning reminded that it governs only with the people’s consent. Polls showed that the more people knew about the bill, the more likely they were to oppose it. The opposition of average Americans to the bill was so intense that it shut down the Senate’s Internet server and flooded the phone system beyond its capacity.  Senators were astonished by the volume and intensity of the reaction, and, in the end, they voted accordingly.  

Though public resistance to the quasi-amnesty bill came from all sides of the political spectrum (pollster Stanley Greenberg reported strong opposition amongst Republicans and Independents, and ambivalence among Democrats), the media used the bill’s demise to declare electoral suicide for the GOP amongst the nation’s fastest growing demographic.  A New York Times headline proclaimed, “After Bill’s Fall, G.O.P May Pay in Latino Votes.”  Even some conservatives got into the act.  Columnist Linda Chavez predicted, “…Republicans who believe this is going to help them at the polls in 2008 may well find themselves sitting on the back benches for years to come.”  

But such claims are dubious.  The GOP will never be able to outflank the Democrats on immigration.  Despite President Bush’s more than generous immigration reform proposal, his approval ratings amongst Hispanics languished at or below those amongst the general public.  

Republicans would do better to remain true to their values of  abiding by the law and assimilation, while emphasizing their support for legal immigration.  This might actually help Republicans gain the support of many Hispanics.  Polls show majority support among American Hispanics for a variety of conservative immigration reforms, including requiring immigrants to be proficient in English as a condition for remaining in the United States.  An August 2005 Time poll of Hispanics revealed 61 percent considered illegal immigration either an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem, and 41 percent thought the U.S. was not doing enough to secure its bor ders against illegal immigration, while 19
percent felt it was doing “too much.” More recently, a June Gallup poll found an overwhelming majority of Hispanic Americans (71 percent) feel immigration levels should stay at current levels or decrease.  

Furthermore, polls reveal that conservative stances on issues like abortion, marriage and the war on terror receive widespread support amongst most immigrant groups, particularly Hispanics.  I am hopeful that Republican allegiance to conservative positions on family issues and foreign policy will attract Hispanic voters, even though, admittedly, no Republican presidential nominee has ever won a majority of the Hispanic vote.  

Clearly, however, while some seem to believe that the Republican Party must sell out their core principles and become “Democrat-lite” on immigration in order to have a shot at securing the support of Hispanic voters, clear-sighted a nalysis reveals that fidelity to conservative values could prove a powerful force over time.   

I also feel compelled to address what became a chief criticism by the Left and many in the mainstream media of those who were skeptical of the immigration legislation:  that opposition to the bill was fueled by “nativism” (read: racism), ignorance and prejudice.  

But, the missing link to understanding Americans’ anxiety over the issue is not an underlying racism but the reality that our nation is failing to build a citizenry that loves America first.  A poll conducted by Investor’s Business Daily found that 64 percent of Hispanics in America considered themselves “mostly Hispanic,” but that only 15 percent saw themselves as “mostly American,” while 69 percent of respondents said they lived in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.  Even worse, 27 percent of the survey sample had lived in the US A for more than 25 years, while only 15 percent lived here less than six years.

Many Americans witness immigration marches where foreign flags are flown; they see little attempt at assimilation in our schools and government bureaucracies; they notice immigrants who spend decades in America but do not attempt to learn English. The truth is, much of the opposition to this bill stemmed from the fact that it did little to encourage immigrant assimilation.  

In the end, the question remains: How did a bill that had the support of the White House, the leadership of both parties in Congress and most of the so-called mainstream media manage to fail?  The answer is that this absurd bill awakened a silent majority fed up with the perpetuation of policies that reward lawlessness, discourage assimilation and ignore potentially grave threats to our national security.  

If the Washington elite on bot h sides of the aisle learn these lessonsand begin to listen to their constituents, then perhaps some good can come out of this mess.