WASHINGTON -- Has the Republican Party become, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently charged, the "anti-immigrant party"?
The accusation is overbroad. Republicans (and others) who are offended by chaos at the southern border, who are concerned about the strains placed by illegal immigration on public services and who believe enforcement should precede comprehensive reform, are not necessarily "anti-immigrant." Reid has an interest in painting with the broadest possible brush to motivate Hispanic supporters in his own, uphill re-election campaign.
But it would be absurd to deny that the Republican ideological coalition includes elements that are anti-immigrant -- those who believe that Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, are a threat to American culture and identity. When Arizona Republican Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth calls for a moratorium on legal immigration from Mexico, when then-Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., refers to Miami as a "Third World country," when State Rep. Russell Pearce, one of the authors of the Arizona immigration law, says Mexicans' and Central Americans' "way of doing business" is different, Latinos can reasonably assume that they are unwelcome in certain Republican circles.
The intensity of these Republican attitudes is evident, not just from what activists say, but from what Republican leaders are being forced to say. Republican Sen. John McCain, a long-term supporter of humane, comprehensive immigration reform, has run a commercial feeding fears of "drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder" by illegal immigrants. Never mind that the level of illegal immigration is down in Arizona, or that skyrocketing crime rates along the border are a myth. McCain's tag line -- "Complete the danged fence" -- will rank as one of the most humiliating capitulations in modern political history.
Ethnic politics is symbolic and personal. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gained African-American support by calling Coretta Scott King while her husband was in prison. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater lost support by voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A generation of African-Americans voters never forgot either gesture.