Immigrant nation ? trading freely and building wealth

Posted: Jun 28, 2004 12:00 AM

A struggle is under way for the soul of the Republican Party between a minority of protectionist xenophobes and those who are pro-trade and pro-immigration. It's beneath the radar screen but it's not so quiet.

I was enormously gratified last week to see voters send a powerful message to Nervous Nellies in the party who remain reluctant to stand on their principles in an election year. In two critical primaries, one for the Senate seat in South Carolina and the other for the House seat in Utah, Republican voters rejected reactionary candidates and awarded politicians who took courageous and optimistic positions on the hot-button issues of immigration, trade and Social Security reform.

In the South Carolina primary for the right to run for Fritz Hollings' Senate seat - the U.S. Senate's most anti-immigration, anti-free-trade member - free trade was the main issue. In a runoff election between pro-trade Congressman Jim DeMint and protectionist former Gov. David Beasley, DeMint ran away with the election at the ballot box.

DeMint's win was particularly satisfying because even though South Carolina has lost textile-industry jobs due to plant relocations, it shows politicians and the media once again underestimated the intelligence and savvy of the voting public to understand the benefits of free trade. DeMint was also unapologetic in his support for personal retirement accounts to reform Social Security, an issue many Republicans have ducked because they are under the misapprehension that it is a "risky" issue. DeMint's success running on Social Security reform illustrates that as with free trade and immigration, the electorate is way ahead of the politicians.

In Utah, Rep. Chris Cannon routed former state legislator Matt Throckmorton by a double-digit margin, even though Throckmorton made immigration the central issue of the campaign. Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo even set up a political action committee and Web site to attack pro-immigration candidates.

Anti-immigration politicians and candidates fail to realize a few fundamental truths, the most important of which is that we are an immigrant country. George Washington famously quipped in 1788 that, "I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong."

Immigrants coming to America do so because the United States is still the city on a shining hill for the poor and persecuted. I just returned from Mexico, where I discussed these matters with some of Mexico's leading business and political figures. I discussed the current situation at some length with Francisco Gil Diaz, Mexico's minister of finance, and with former Minister of Finance Dr. Pedro Aspe, now a very successful entrepreneur. I can tell you, Mexicans do not leave their families and homes - risking life and limb to come to America - out of animus to America or Americans.

I also had discussions with the highly respected businessman and business leader Carlos Slim and with Dr. Roberto Salinas de Leon, executive director of policy analysis for TV Azteca, and we agreed that people don't come to America looking for a handout or welfare. They come here out of necessity, looking for work and opportunities that do not presently exist in Mexico. In the long run, the best way to stop mass migration from Mexico to the United States is not to militarize the border but to ensure that Mexico has a growing economy. That way Mexico can be a beacon for its own citizens and maybe even for people in neighboring countries.

Until recently, there was real concern that the anti-immigration/anti-trade virus would spread over into North Carolina, where Vernon Robinson is running against Ed Broyhill for the U.S. House of Representatives. I originally endorsed Robinson, but I had to withdraw my endorsement and support Broyhill because Robinson was running a very negative and aggressive anti-immigration campaign, which I believe is contrary to the core values of the party of Lincoln.

The votes in recent primaries, however, should be a shot across the bow not only of these reactionary Republicans but also of John Kerry and other Democrats buying into the notion that CEOs of companies with overseas operations are somehow unpatriotic. These votes clarify that the voters realize the blame for jobs going overseas should not be directed at foreign people or countries but at bad policies and the elected officials who enact them, burdening American businesses and making American operations uncompetitive in a global economy.

The results of the DeMint and Cannon elections highlight how wrong conventional wisdom usually is. These elections should also remind those running for office this fall that voters will often reward politicians who have the courage of their convictions so long as their convictions appeal to voters' best hopes and confidence rather than their worst fears and doubts.

Looking to the fall campaign season, I am hopeful that other Republicans will stand against anti-immigrant policies, stand up for free trade and stand behind wealth creation for the little guy as well as the rich by allowing workers to put a significant part of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts.

From immigrant nation to investor nation, trading freely with the rest of the world, America must continue to be that city on a shining hill - not only for its own citizens but by example for everyone else in the world.