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By Rosa Rosales
The Wall Street Journal; Page A16
February 5, 2008
Political pundits used to
maintain that the American electorate was
galvanized around the issue of illegal
immigration. Voters, they claimed, would punish
any candidate who failed to take a tough stance
on immigrants and did not adamantly oppose the
"A" word -- Amnesty -- in all its tortured
Yet a funny thing happened in
Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
The most anti-immigrant candidates performed
below expectations, and those accused of
supporting amnesty and in-state tuition for
undocumented immigrants won.
How is this possible? How
could John McCain, the author of the
McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration bill
beat Mitt Romney, who aired
anti-illegal-immigrant commercials more than
12,000 times in Iowa and New Hampshire alone?
Well, it turns out that 57% of
Iowa primary voters actually favored earned
citizenship for the undocumented. Only 23%
favored deportation. And according to New
Hampshire exit polls, immigration was not among
the three most important issues for Democrats.
It was tied for third place among Republicans.
In Florida, Mr. Romney's
anti-illegal-immigrant message led Cuban
Americans to vote for Mr. McCain by a 5-1
margin. Additionally, CNN exit polls showed that
Republicans who favored deportation for illegal
immigrants constituted only 40% of the vote,
while 58% favored either temporary resident
status or an earned pathway to citizenship.
Now the pundits have changed
their tune. Mr. Romney's anti-illegal-immigrant
rhetoric, they're declaring, is driving Latino
voters away from the GOP and making
traditionally conservative states such as
Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Iowa and
even Arizona into swing states.
However, the backlash to Mr.
Romney's rhetoric was predictable from the
beginning. In 22 national public opinion polls
conducted last year, 50%-83% of Americans
supported some type of pathway to legalization
for undocumented workers. In almost every
competitive race in the 2006 congressional
elections that matched an anti-immigration
candidate against one that supported
comprehensive immigration reform, the
anti-immigrant candidate lost.
Interestingly enough, Mr.
Romney started out with a fairly moderate
position on immigration, saying in 2005 that it
would not be "practical or economic for the
country" to deport all undocumented immigrants
residing in the United States. In reference to
the proposals of President Bush and Mr. McCain
to create pathways to legalization, Mr. Romney
told the Boston Globe that, "I think those are
Yet once Mr. Romney became
serious about a presidential run his rhetoric
became increasingly anti-immigrant. On his way
out the door as governor of Massachusetts, he
initiated a program to deputize state troopers
to detain individuals solely on the basis of
their immigration status. Once on the campaign
trail, he began running numerous ads attacking
the other candidates for being too soft on "illegals."
Apparently conservative voters
respond to issues that impact their personal
quality of life far more than they do to
racially polarized rhetoric designed to pit one
group of Americans against another. In the two
states Mr. Romney won, Michigan and Nevada, he
focused on economic issues, and exit polls show
that issue resonated much more than immigration.
While Mr. Romney's campaign
must be disappointed with the election results
so far, it is immigrants themselves who've
suffered the most from the divisive offensive on
immigration. Congress shelved comprehensive
reform last summer, as many members became
convinced that helping immigrants, even when it
is in our nation's interest, was politically
untenable. Inflammatory rhetoric has also led to
a dramatic increase in hate crimes and racial
profiling against Latinos, according to the FBI
and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2008, our country needs a
leader who will unite Americans, not divide
them; one that honors the hard work and
patriotism of immigrants, not holds them out for
public scorn. Even if pundits, bloggers and talk
show hosts can't seem to get this message in
their heads, the American public is speaking
through their votes. They are choosing
candidates who offer hope and solutions, not the
politics of fear.
Ms. Rosales is president of
the League of United Latin American Citizens.
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