Can Opponents 'Swift-boat' the Immigrant Rights Movement?
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

Editor's 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.

San 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 Minutemen.
"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 against immigrants."
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 Karl Rove.
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 government.
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 elections.
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 issue."
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



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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