Election results on Tuesday, especially in Virginia and New York, also should encourage nervous Democrats that they can support comprehensive immigration reform — stronger enforcement plus earned legalization — and prevail.
To temper legitimate concern in the country about the local burdens resulting from failure of the U.S. government to control its borders, both parties in Congress should extend federal “impact aid” to communities whose schools and health facilities are especially affected.
Polling on immigration consistently shows that large majorities of Americans — two-thirds, in a September ABC survey — believe the United States is not doing enough to curb illegal immigration. B almost as many, 58 percent, support allowing illegal immigrants to earn their way to legal status.
However, a fervent minority — figured at a third of Republicans in one private poll — opposes “amnesty” and has had its views amplified by right-wing radio talk-show hosts. Republicans in Congress have bowed to the pressure.
Even though past election results overwhelmingly indicate that enforcement-only campaigns don’t succeed — indeed, by offending Hispanics, pose a long-term threat to the GOP — Republicans seem bent on making illegal immigration a centerpiece of their 2008 campaigns.
GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson are accusing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani of having run a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, and Giuliani is trying to turn the fire onto Democrats. At this rate, things could get ugly next year, with Republicans waving the “A” word — “Amnesty” — like a bloody shirt.
Recent election results demonstrate that it doesn’t work.
In New York, for example, various Democratic county officials survived GOP efforts to link them to Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s unpopular proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Most of the Democrats opposed Spitzer’s plan.
Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, says, “If you have an either-or debate on border enforcement, enforcement is going to win. If you have an enforcement-plus-legalization debate, Democrats can win, but they actually have to get out in front of it and take the initiative.”
That’s proved true in Arizona — “ground zero” in the immigration wars — where Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) got re-elected in 2006 by a 2-to-1 margin against an anti-immigrant GOP opponent. She is a strong advocate of federal impact aid to help communities cope with immigration burdens.
In 2006, other appeals to nativism failed in Indiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida and Delaware, and — after House Republicans voted to make merely being an illegal immigrant a felony — the GOP percentage of Hispanic votes dropped from 40 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2006.
Despite all that evidence, House GOP leaders have staged vote after vote on amendments designed to restrict benefits to illegal immigrants — even where the law already restricts them — and Senate Republicans led the way in filibustering the DREAM Act, which would have allowed young people brought to the U.S. by illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
If Republicans want to destroy their future prospects in increasingly Hispanic, once-Republican states like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, it’s their option. But the process could be very nasty.
(Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)