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Immigration pits GOP elites against conservative voters

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 14, 2005

It's an unfortunate fact of political life that's taken me some time to get used to, but here it is: If a Republican politician is uncommonly good on both economics and social issues, he will probably be terrible on immigration. Think Dick Armey, Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake and Jack Kemp in his better days. All strong economic and social conservatives; all weak on immigration control.

And that's just conservative Republicans. Moderate to liberal Republicans tend to be even worse. Flake's guest-workers program, one of the pieces of legislation floating around that corresponds fairly closely with the Bush administration's amnesty-light proposal, is co-sponsored by his fellow Arizona Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe. While there are many honorable exceptions, the GOP as a whole has been useless, and sometimes pernicious, on immigration.

Yet most rank-and-file Republican voters take a more sensible position. They believe that immigration should be legal and controlled, occurring at a manageable level accompanied by assimilation. They are receptive to immigrants who actually intend to give their allegiance to America, but don't see any need to import poverty, cultural balkanization and sociopolitical fragmentation.

In other words, the GOP's grassroots conservative base approaches immigration with different motives than the cheap-labor lobby, transnational progressives, multiculturalists -- and many of the Republican candidates they end up voting for. This discontinuity between the party's leadership and its voters has only gotten worse under George W. Bush, who has maintained a stubborn infatuation with the idea of offering "temporary" worker status to millions of illegal aliens and extending that status to an apparently limitless number of willing foreign workers all over the world -- only after their prospective U.S. employers have verified that the jobs they're being offered are of the kind that Americans just won't do, of course.

There is much that can be said for Karl Rove's political acumen. His grassroots turnout strategies in the 2004 campaign certainly paid off. But immigration, an issue Rove seems to mistakenly see as the key to a Hispanic Republican majority, is testing the Architect's limits. Republicans with their ears closer to the ground –and the conservative grassroots -- don't see amnesty and guest workers as winning political issues.

According to a Washington Post report last week, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay distanced himself slightly from the president on immigration reform. DeLay's proposal wasn't much better. He would offer illegal aliens guest-worker status, but only if they go home first. It doesn't advantage lawbreakers as much as Bush's version, but many current illegals would probably still see their status regularized after a visit back home and overall it would increase immigration. In the New York Times account, the Republican leader suggests it as a possible modification of the White House proposal.

DeLay's arm-twisting tactics may have earned him the nickname the Hammer, but he also has a good read on the House Republican Conference. If he is suggesting compromise, it is a good indication that the president's immigration-liberalization plan cannot pass as presently outlined because it lacks GOP support.

Rush Limbaugh, as attentive to the opinion trends of right-of-center Americans as any commentator, has also spoken of a grassroots revolt against the party establishment on immigration. In late January, he warned that the president's approach to the issue jeopardized his initiatives on Social Security and tax reform. Limbaugh went further to contend that porous borders threatened our national sovereignty and the electoral coalition that supports the Republican Party.

The latter point was also made in a National Review cover story at the end of last year, written by David Frum rather than one of the magazine's usual immigration restrictionists. "There's no issue where the beliefs and interests of the party rank-and-file diverge more radically from the beliefs and interests of the party's leaders," Frum wrote. "Immigration for Republicans in 2005 is what crime was for Democrats in 1965 or abortion in 1975: a vulnerable point at which a strong-minded opponent could drive a wedge that would shatter the GOP."

Even voices on the Wall Street Journal editorial page have taken notice. In an Opinion Journal column following Limbaugh's volley, John Fund urged "measures to address the legitimate concerns of Americans who worry the federal government has completely lost control of the borders." While he mainly criticized serious immigration reforms and downplayed the electoral clout of restrictionists, Fund implicitly acknowledged the gap between the GOP's elites and the voters they need to remain in power.

The immigration debate has become the latest struggle for the soul of the GOP, with the party's majorities potentially hanging in the balance. Time will tell whose lead Republican officeholders decide to follow -- the Hammer or the Architect's.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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