The amnesty fallacy

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Nov 16, 2006 4:20 PM
The amnesty fallacy

Little did voters know it, but last Tuesday they were delivering a mandate for amnesty for illegal immigrants. Most of them probably thought they were voting on the Iraq War or on corruption, but elite opinion-makers have decided that they also were panting for a laxer immigration policy.

There's no doubt that electing a Democratic Congress furthers the cause of an amnesty and guest-worker program by removing the main obstacle to both: the Republican majority in the House. But there is no good evidence that championing strict immigration enforcement was a loser for Republicans, or that voters elected Democrats explicitly to permit illegals already in this country to stay and to invite more of their brethren to come. Any suggestion otherwise comes from advocates of amnesty who interpret anything voters do -- now up to and including expressing their discontent with an unpopular war -- as a call for more immigration.

The epicenter of their case is in Arizona. Two immigration-restrictionist Republicans lost House races in a state that experiences more illegal border crossings than all the other states bordering Mexico combined. If strict-enforcement conservatives can't make it there, the argument goes, they can't make it anywhere. But Arizona wasn't really a restrictionist rout.

Republican Randy Graf, a Minuteman, lost a race for a Republican seat, but he was never given a chance by anyone because of his fringy obsession with the issue. Meanwhile, Republican incumbent J.D. Hayworth, who wrote a book on border enforcement, also lost. Notably, Hayworth was called a "bully" by the editorial board of The Arizona Republic, which had endorsed him in his prior six elections. The lesson from these House races is that a monomaniacal focus on immigration, or too much heavy-breathing rhetoric, turns off voters.

Arizona's Senate race was a truer test of the political merits of the issue, which is one of the reasons that it is less talked about. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is an opponent of the "comprehensive bill" -- effectively an amnesty -- passed by the Senate last year. But he is also a thoughtful policymaker who will never be mistaken for a bomb-thrower. His Democratic opponent forthrightly supported the Senate bill and a guest-worker program. Kyl won.

It's disingenuous to argue that Arizona rejected enforcement when, as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies points out, it approved ballot measures to deny bail to illegals, bar them from collecting punitive damages, keep them from receiving certain state subsidies and make English the state's official language. If Arizona had recoiled from a get-tough approach to immigration, it would have rejected these measures along with Graf and Hayworth, rather than approving them by 3-1 margins.

The fact is that the slaughter of Republican candidates this year was indiscriminate. It hit restrictionists and advocates of amnesty alike. For every high-profile, tough-on-immigration Republican who lost, like Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, there was also a supporter of amnesty like Rhode Island's Sen. Lincoln Chafee. The immigration issue wasn't killing off Republicans; it was discontent with the war and a general disgust with the GOP brand.

The true acid test on the issue is how Democrats handled it. They ran what everyone acknowledges was a brilliant campaign. Yet, they tried to minimize differences with Republicans on immigration and mentioned it nowhere in their post-election agenda.

Finally, there is the matter of the Hispanic vote. The Republicans' share of it declined to 30 percent this year from 38 percent in the last congressional midterms in 2002. This datum -- often characterized as disastrous -- has to be put in the context of a decline in the GOP share of the white vote, from 58 percent to 51 percent. Republicans were equal-opportunity losers this year, alienating everyone from new immigrants to descendants from the Mayflower.

For all of this, it seems that President Bush and House Majority Leader-elect Nancy Pelosi might still accept the "immigration enforcement lost" interpretation of election. They both do so at their political peril.