Immigration is the canary in the coal mine of American politics. Like unseen deadly gases in a mine, fear of foreigners has a capacity to strike without warning or detection. Only a few months ago immigration was a back-burner issue in the 2010 election campaign; a poll in immigration-conscious California ranked it a distant fourth among issues of concern to Republican voters.
Then came the overwrought restrictive Arizona law giving police broad power to detain illegal immigrants. This measure — Senate Bill 1070 — has put illegal immigration on the agenda in the California and Texas elections and prompted showdowns in statehouses on immigration bills from Massachusetts to Idaho.
The Arizona bill has public support, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center and The New York Times, but is opposed by a majority of Latinos. These polls also show support for comprehensive federal reform. Pushing President Barack Obama to step up to the plate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., placed immigration reform on the Senate agenda. Reid, who opposes the Arizona bill, is trailing in his bid for re-election and seeking Latino support.
Most of us are offspring of immigrants. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, in words later quoted by President Ronald Reagan: “All of our people all over the country — except the pure-blooded Indians — are immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, including even those who came over on the Mayflower.”
FDR made this comment in a 1936 campaign speech in which he celebrated the appealing idealism of the national motto, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” But unity was unobtainable during the Great Depression. At the time of FDR’s speech, Mexicans in the Southwest were being repatriated so they would not take jobs from American workers. (The Mexican-born population in the United States fell to 377,000 in 1940 from 639,000 in 1930.) The sweeps in which Mexicans were rounded up lacked proper judicial process: an undetermined number of U.S. citizens who “looked Mexican” were also deported.
There is a persistent dualism in American attitudes toward immigration. On the one hand we celebrate diversity and recognize, as demographer Michael Barone wrote, that the nation owes its shape and concentrations of population “less to the logic of geography than to the movements of great streams of newcomers who together created the country.” On the other, we worry that the United States will attract more foreigners than it can comfortably absorb. Although that concern is focused on illegal immigration across the 1,950-mile border shared by Mexico and the United States, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that roughly half of the 10.75 million illegal immigrants in the United States arrived legally and overstayed their visas. It is a sad fact that the mechanisms for tracking those who overstay visas — from Mexico or anywhere else — are inadequate.
Historically, anxiety about immigrants had less to do with their legality than with the race, ethnicity, or religion of the newcomers. At various times alarms were sounded about Irish, Italian, Polish, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, among others, all of whom were seen as threatening American culture and values. In California, agitation erupted against Chinese workers who had been brought in to complete the transcontinental railroad but were perceived as taking jobs from whites. Congress passed a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
Later, California farmers were similarly alarmed by competition from Japanese immigrants. A restrictive 1924 federal bill contained a clause that virtually excluded Japanese immigrants. Japan was incensed; the exclusionary clause signaled a long downturn in U.S.-Japan relations that eventually culminated in war.
On occasion, most notably in the case of the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan, fear of foreigners and Catholics combined with virulent hatred of blacks. But every outburst of anti-immigrant fervor also produced a political backlash. During the 1884 presidential campaign Republican nominee James Blaine was on track to win the presidency over his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland. Six days before the election Blaine gave a speech in New York City in which a Protestant minister warmed up the crowd by denouncing the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.” These were not Blaine’s sentiments. His mother was Irish and Roman Catholic and he espoused Irish independence from Britain and was accordingly popular with the New York’s large Irish-American community. Most historians agree that in the tumult of the rally Blaine simply failed to hear the minister’s bigoted phrase, which he almost certainly would have repudiated. Democrats pounced, distributing handbills with the offending remark in Irish-American neighborhoods. The Irish deserted Blaine, costing him New York’s 36 electoral votes by the slim margin of 1,149 votes and the presidency.
Modern anti-immigrant campaigns have also produced unintended consequences. In California in 1994, moderate Republican Gov. Pete Wilson hitched his re-election campaign to Proposition 187, an initiative that would have denied medical and educational benefits to illegal immigrants. A Wilson television commercial showed Mexicans pouring across the border to the sound of scary music as an announcer declared, “They keep coming!”
It’s often forgotten that Wilson, an able governor, led in the polls before he endorsed Proposition 187 and could have won without it. But his name has become indelibly linked with this measure, approved by voters but in large part subsequently invalidated by the courts. The principal political legacy of Proposition 187 was alienation of Latinos, whom the Democrats mobilized as they swept to victory in the state elections four years later. Latinos have retained their Democratic affiliations and now constitute more than a fifth of registered voters in California. Their influence may be tested in this year’s U.S. Senate election. Embattled Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer opposes the law, while all three Republicans who are vying to oppose her support it.
Will there be a broader political backlash? In the month since SB 1070 became law, some Republican candidates have been reluctant to embrace it. One weathervane is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking re-election against the Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White. Perry, as shrewd as he is conservative, said that duplicating the Arizona law “would not be the right direction for Texas.”
Opponents of restrictive immigration laws have also won some statehouse challenges, including rejection by the Massachusetts House of a bill to bar illegal immigrants from receiving state and federal benefits. In Idaho, where a sweeping anti-immigrant bill was rejected in committee in March, milder legislation requiring employers to verify electronically the legal status of employees has stalled.
These outcomes notwithstanding, supporters of restrictive anti-immigrant legislation have certainly succeeded in pushing the issue to the forefront of this year’s political debate. There are perils in this for Democrats in general and for Obama in particular. The latest Pew Research Poll showed that only a quarter of Americans are satisfied with Obama’s performance on immigration.
Indeed, there has hardly been any administration performance on this issue at all. Overall, the Obama administration has done reasonably well against economic headwinds, winning a major victory on health care and apparently nearing one on financial reform legislation. But the White House wants no part of an immigration fight in a midterm election year. It’s hard to fault Obama for ducking this divisive battle — indeed, some of those who urge Obama to undertake it were criticizing him only a few weeks ago for trying to do too much on too many fronts instead of concentrating on economic recovery. But it’s also hard to escape the fact that federal inaction on immigration has left a void that states can’t fill piecemeal.
SB 1070 may be unconstitutional. In any case, the measure is such a mess that the Arizona Legislature amended it after it was signed into law, replacing the requirement that police could inquire into immigration status during any “lawful contact” to a more precise standard that police could do so only if they are stopping or arresting someone for other reasons.
Still, it’s understandable that Arizona felt the need to act. Illegal immigration is down overall but has increased in Arizona, in part because a federal crackdown at border crossings in California and Texas funneled the flow of illegals into other states. Kidnapping and gang violence are on the rise in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and it is not surprising that there is public support for restrictive legislation.
The Arizona bill, however, does nothing to address the most pressing issues of illegal immigration: securing the border and finding a just solution for immigrants who have lived here for many years and are contributing to American society. Indeed, these solutions are beyond the reach of any state. On most issues your columnist shares the enduring view of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that states are “laboratories of democracy” that should be allowed wide experimental latitude.
Immigration, however, cries out for a national solution. If SB 1070 forces Obama and Congress to consider genuine immigration reform, it will have done us all a big favor.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.