'Swift-boat' the Immigrant Rights Movement?
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media
Note: What will it take for anti-immigration forces
to create a backlash against their opponents? A
united Republican hard line on the issue would be
key, but may not be forthcoming, writes NAM editor
Rene P. Ciria-Cruz.
Francisco: Advocates of tougher immigration enforcement,
in the weeks following the dramatic marches for
the legalization of the 11 million undocumented
immigrants in the United States, have tried in vain
to find just the right message to trigger a decisive
backlash against illegal immigration.
They've failed despite such cheer-leading headlines
as, "After Protests, Backlash Grows" (Washington
Post); "Did immigration rallies spur a backlash?"
(CNN); and "Monday's boycott generating backlash
of anger and frustration" (San Diego Union-Tribune).
Opponents lack a unified command, and the Republican
Party is too divided on the issue to be relied on
to push a message more coherent and credible than
the vitriolic rants of grassroots groups like the
"We don't do mass demonstrations, only legislation
and policy work," says Susan Wysocki of the
Federation for American Immigration Reform, one
of the most important anti-immigration lobby groups.
Reports of a backlash also may be exaggerated. "For
example, there's no sign of a backlash in California,"
says Mark DiCamillo of the Field Research organization.
"If anything the Latinos are energized, and
they're the fastest growing vote in the state. Immigration
is not mobilizing white voters who have grievances
The picture could be different in states with smaller
numbers of Latinos. Still, angry opponents of illegal
immigration haven't succeeded in seizing the initiative
from the protests and fanning irrepressible public
hostility against them.
Backers of immigration crackdown have vainly sought
the key "Willie Horton" moment against
the pro-immigrant forces. Protest violence could
have quickly discredited the marches, but these
have been remarkably peaceful and orderly.
Opponents tried zeroing in on the Mexican flags
that flooded the early protests, but activists sidestepped
the charge of anti-Americanism by waving more American
flags in subsequent rallies.
Detractors attacked the release of a Spanish version
of "The Star-Spangled Banner," calling
it an insulting takeover of the American national
anthem. President Bush even seconded their insistence
that it be sung only in English.
The flap died quickly. It turns out the anthem was
sung in Spanish at Bush's own inaugural festivities,
and the State Department has four Spanish versions
on its Website.
Lou Dobbs, CNN's anti-illegal immigration icon,
tried red-baiting. Citing the antiwar ANSWER coalition
among the May Day organizers, Dobbs charged that
"radicals" had taken over the movement.
"Pinko de Mayo," chimed in the right-wing
ChronWatch Web site, in a play on the Mexican Cinco
de Mayo holiday. But with the Cold War long thawed,
the red-baiting fell flat.
Now, enforcement-only advocates are harping on the
threat of "invasion," buoyed by a Zogby
poll showing 61 percent of 8,000 respondents felt
less sympathetic to the undocumented as a result
of the massive May Day protests.
The results of the local council election in Herndon,
Va., also lifted their spirits. Voters reportedly
alienated by the protests threw out council members
who had backed the building of a center to help
Latino day laborers.
Turning the strength of the May Day marches against
the movement itself, critics contend that the crowds
that jammed streets and closed businesses all over
the country showed the extent of the invasion of
America -- by alien lawbreakers who don't want to
assimilate and wish to take over Americans' English-speaking
way of life.
"May Day was a strike against America,"
wrote former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan,
who called the event "a demonstration of raw
street power to coerce Congress to grant amnesty
now" or face trouble in the streets.
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin warned
that the marchers were driven by "the core
concepts of reconquista" or the "reconquest"
of the US Southwest by Mexico. Malkin said Latinos
"aim to obliterate America's borders by sheer
demographic and political force."
But immigration opponents, hampered by uncoordinated
efforts, are unable to go on the offensive. It doesn't
help that the Republican Party is split over immigration
reform, although some GOP lawmakers are among the
most powerful boosters of a crackdown and a 700-mile
fence on the US-Mexico border.
President Bush and a number of party officials,
mindful of support from industries that rely on
cheap immigrant labor, have cautiously balanced
proposals for stricter border enforcement with guest
worker programs and some form of amnesty. Hopes
of attracting the growing Latino vote also drive
their gingerly approach to immigration reform.
Opinion polls bolster a middle course. Although
a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found majority support
for further criminalizing illegal immigration, nearly
two-thirds of respondents said the undocumented
already living in the United States should be allowed
to stay if they meet certain requirements.
Extremists in the GOP, however, have been pressing
the White House to get off the fence. "Liberals
can easily and accurately be painted as opposing
enforcement," insisted a disclosed private
memo from Rep. Lamar Smith, a member of the House
subcommittee on immigration, to Bush strategist
But some conservative big guns like Grover Norquist
of Americans for Tax Reform argue that letting immigrants
stay and having stronger borders aren't contradictory,
criticizing hardliners like Rep. Tom Tancredo for
weakening the GOP standing among Latinos.
Neo-conservative William Kristol, concurred, writing
that turning the GOP into "an anti-immigration,
Know Nothing party" would be very costly and
dash hopes of a permanent Republican majority in
Crackdown proponents hope that Bush and the GOP-led
Congress' low approval ratings among conservatives
-- now only at 45 percent an AP/Ipsos poll -- will
soon force the party to swing to their side.
Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman did warn
party leaders that they could lose control of both
houses of Congress due to low conservative turnout
in November. Polls show Democratic voters are more
gung-ho than Republicans heading into the midterm
Rove, assigned to spur the GOP's conservative base
into action, must deal with demoralization over
the war in Iraq, government overspending and immigration.
He can't do much to change the GOP's fortunes on
the first two issues. But can a harder line on immigration
be the magic bullet?
"But mobilizing GOP conservatives through immigration
is useful mainly during primaries where your audience
is Republican," says DiCamillo. "In the
general election you must court a mixed audience,
and not all conservatives want a hard line on this
Groups like FAIR are hopeful, however. "Congressional
offices are getting 20 percent more mail, and mostly
against illegal immigration," says Wysocki.
"Yes, I think legislators will come around
to an enforcement-only policy." Photo by Kevin
Chan of New America Media