With the passage this week by the House of Representatives of tough new anti-immigration legislation, political observers are warning of a growing rift on the issue between moderate Republicans allied to the White House and party hard-liners in the House.
The House passed the bill in a largely party-line vote, with 36 Democrats joining the Republican majority in favor and 17 Republicans voting no. The bill calls for a controversial new fence along parts of the Mexican border and imposes criminal penalties on those found aiding undocumented immigrants.
Before approving the bill, the House leadership flatly rejected an amendment, favored by President Bush, that called for a guest-worker program to help legalize some undocumented aliens. Nonetheless, the White House issued a statement supporting the House measure.
The issue is also raising new barriers between Republican leaders and Jewish organizations, which have long advocated liberal immigration laws, based on humanitarian concerns and historic sentiment. Jewish Republicans, too, have emerged as key figures on the pro-immigration side in recent months, pitting many of them against the hard-liners who dominate the House leadership.
The debate has featured increasingly bitter rhetoric between the two sides. Hard-liners paint dark pictures of out-of-control borders and a growing immigrant population steeped in criminality. Some warn of a threat to America’s “national identity” from immigrants with different cultures and support volunteer border patrols by armed vigilante groups. Opposing them, immigration advocates decry threats to immigrants’ human rights and frequently condemn immigration foes as nativists and bigots.
“Unfortunately, throughout our history, there have always been Americans who believed that coming to these shores was a right reserved only for them and their ancestors, and for no others,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in a recent California speech to GOP governors.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that was wrong then, and those who argue that now are wrong today,” said Mehlman, whose mother once headed the Baltimore region of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Pro-immigration Republicans have close ties to businesses that employ immigrants and would be hurt by tighter restrictions. Moderates also worry that anti-immigration sentiment will hurt party efforts to court Hispanic voters, a top priority in the Bush White House.
The House measure approved this week would impose criminal penalties on those found in the country illegally or aiding illegal immigrants. It authorizes local police to enforce federal immigration law and sets fines as high as $25,000 on employers of undocumented aliens. It also calls for a controversial new fence along parts of the Mexican border.
Current law makes entering the country illegally a crime; once inside, however, undocumented immigrants incur only a civil penalty if they are discovered by the authorities.
The centrist New Democrat Network declared in a statement that this week’s House measure “sows the seeds of an immigration crisis unlike anything this country has ever experienced, making all 11 million immigrants felons.”
The future of the House bill is uncertain. The Senate is due to take up at least two competing measures next year, including a bill by Arizona Republican John McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy that combines tighter borders with relatively generous guest-worker provisions. House Republican leaders have vowed not to accept any legislation that includes a guest-worker program.
A second Senate measure, sponsored by Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, calls for stiff border controls similar to parts of the House bill.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the nation’s senior Jewish Republican lawmaker, recently introduced his own bill, seeking to marry the two competing approaches. Conservative critics say the Specter bill would more than double the number of employment-based visas, to about 300,000.
Jewish organizations, including the major Jewish civil rights agencies as well as the main federated philanthropic body, United Jewish Communities, support a mixed approach that emphasizes border control, increased legal immigration and paths to legalization for undocumented immigrants, such as guest-worker programs. Most groups say they follow the lead of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has aided immigrants for more than a century.
“As a community that’s so conscious of security, to have a system with 11 million people living in the shadows creates a security risk because people could hide there,” the Washington representative of HIAS, Gideon Aronoff, said this week after the House approved its bill. “If we have an illegal immigration system, authorities have to use limited resources to chase after busboys and nannies. That’s a waste.”
Beyond favoring more liberal immigration rules, some Jewish organizational leaders warn against what they see as extremist tendencies within the anti-immigration movement.
“We have spoken out on the vigilante groups patrolling the border,” said the Washington representative of the Anti-Defamation League, Jess Hordes. “That is an important piece of [the anti-immigration movement] that has links to white supremacist groups. A lot of the mainstream press had missed this part of the story.”
The leading House supporter of stricter immigration laws, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who speaks of running for president in 2008, openly supports the Minutemen vigilante groups patrolling the border and advocates ending automatic citizenship for children born in this country.
Tancredo’s political action committee, Team America PAC, which he co-founded with conservative activist Bay Buchanan, sister of commentator Patrick Buchanan, has a Web site that features links to the Minutemen. It also features news clips that seek to link undocumented immigrants to disease, crime and mayhem. “Illegal aliens decapitate children” one headline says. “Illegal immigrants bringing tuberculosis, our children at risk,” says another.
Some Republicans worry that Tancredo’s PAC is introducing an anti-immigrant edge into their politics that will hurt them at the ballot box. Political analyst Marc Ambinder, writing at National Journal blog Hotline on Call, reported recently that “in the immigration debate, many GOP pollsters and strategists and big thinkers believe that independent voters, especially women, and nearly all Latino voters, interpret ‘preserving national identity’ as a code word for ‘keeping America white and Christian.’ Some have tested the phrase in polls and focus groups and confirmed their findings.”
Buchanan said the idea that “preserving national identity” was nativist code language was “ridiculous.”
“One of our great identities is as a melting pot,” she said. “There’s not anything mean-spirited on either side,” Buchanan said of the immigration debate.