By Cynthia Tucker Sat Feb 9, 7:56 PM ET Yahoo News
So much for Tancredoism.
Tom Tancredo is the Colorado congressman who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on a simple platform of nativism and undisguised contempt for illegal immigrants. Since his ill-tempered and simplistic views reflected the sentiments of the hard-core Republican base, several other members of the GOP field adopted a similar mean-spirited rhetoric.
As Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney -- Republican hopefuls with moderate records on illegal immigration -- tacked toward Know-Nothingism, Arizona Sen. John McCain stood largely apart, resisting the impulse to blame illegal immigrants for everything from terrorism to high taxes. As his signature legislation to legalize undocumented workers was routinely excoriated as "amnesty" by conservative talk-show hosts and right-wing bloggers, McCain barely budged.
In November, during a Republican debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., his GOP rivals worked to prove their anti-immigration bona fides, citing their support for such dubious measures as high fences and hot pursuit of Mexican landscapers. A clearly unenthusiastic McCain pledged to tighten the borders but declined to ratchet up his rhetoric.
"We must recognize these are God's children as well," he said. "They need our love and compassion, and I want to ensure that I will enforce the borders first. But we won't demagogue it."
Now, McCain is the likely Republican nominee. Among the losers in last Tuesday's mega-primary was the Tancredo Credo, which placed illegal immigrants at the center of every peril and every problem facing the American voter. With both remaining Democrats -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- having voted for comprehensive immigration reform, there is little chance the Oval Office will be occupied by an anti-immigration mossback.
Even Republican voters have moved immigration down to their second most-important issue, after the economy, according to Super Tuesday exit polls. The war in Iraq ranked third among GOP voters. Democrats, meanwhile, don't list immigration among their top three concerns. Instead, they emphasize the economy, the war in Iraq and health care.
Illegal immigration remains a complex and nettlesome issue, requiring a thoughtful and measured response. That, by the way, was represented by the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive reform bill, which failed when Republicans, despite support from President Bush, refused to vote for it.
While illegal immigrants burden the social infrastructure -- schools, hospitals and housing -- they also revitalize many neighborhoods as they open new businesses and buy additional goods and services.
Many immigrant children will start elementary school with poor English skills. That forces teachers to work harder and places an undue burden on schools that are already overcrowded. But those Mexican and Guatemalan schoolchildren will learn to speak English quickly because language skills are more easily acquired in youth. (The relative youth of illegal immigrants also helps the United States solve a demographic problem: As the U.S. birth rate falls, we are aging as a nation. We need a steady supply of younger workers.)
At the very bottom of the wage scale, illegal immigrants probably take a few jobs away from uneducated and marginalized American laborers. But the effect is minimal, according to researchers. The most comprehensive analysis has found that illegal immigration depresses wages no more than 50 cents to 60 cents an hour -- hardly a figure that makes or breaks a budget.
Those subtleties were drowned out by the Know-Nothing demagoguery that dominated the Republican presidential campaign. But with the GOP race largely settled -- and with Obama and Clinton conscientiously courting Latino voters -- the rhetoric will likely moderate.
That's because voters didn't fall for the scapegoating premise of Tancredoism. It was a bad product, and few voters bought it.
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