GOP 2008 agenda? It's the illegals,  stupid
Sacramento Bee
Dec. 28, 2007


Opinion by Peter Schrag

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Who said this? "Immigration to this country is increasing and is making its greatest relative increase from races most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes among those races half of whom have no occupation and most of whom represent the rudest form of labor.

"The immigrants who come to the United States reduce the rate of wages by ruinous competition, and then take their savings out of the country. Home as a foreign country. They have no interest or stake in country and never become American citizens." Many, he went on, are genetically prone to crime, insanity and disease.

Five points credit if you guessed it isn't Rep. (and late presidential candidate) Tom "throw all illegals out" Tancredo of Colorado, or Mitt Romney, or Rush Limbaugh or Lou Dobbs of CNN. Two more points if you recognized it as not coming from anyone in this century. A perfect 10 if you traced it back to the last decades of the 19th century.

The author, in a pair of articles on "The Restriction of Immigration" for The Atlantic magazine in 1891, was Rep. (later Sen.) Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. His undesirables were Jews, Italians, Poles and Hungarians, people like Tancredo's Sicilian great-grandparents. In those days, of course, everybody was undocumented.

So you can say that the current debate among GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani and Romney about who would be the meanest, toughest guy on illegal immigration is in an American tradition almost as old as immigration itself. Giuliani's father, an Italian immigrant who served prison time for robbery, and was a collector for Giuliani's mob-connected uncle, would have been a perfect example for Lodge.

The tradition goes back to the Salem witch trials and "No Irish Need Apply" and "The Chinese Must Go," and "Japs keep moving." Not all of it was overtly racist. The official targets of the Great Red Scare of the 1920s were communists and anarchists, although most of them also happened to be Italian immigrants. In the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case, two Italian immigrant anarchists were convicted and executed for a robbery-murder in Braintree, Mass. in 1920 that they probably didn't commit.

And there was, of course, the pursuit of communists, alleged communists and "fellow travelers" in the 1950s, and the blacklists and loyalty oaths that came with it. Americans were encouraged (and often pressured) to denounce colleagues and associates they suspected. Hollywood producers, politicians and university trustees, including the regents of the University of California, folded under the pressure. Many of the blacklisted never recovered.

The present furor about illegal immigrants isn't quite like any of those things. But the attempt to exploit anti-immigrant rage and fear by politicians such as Romney and Giuliani and by the radio talkers that thrive on the issue comes awfully close.

A new Arizona law that will go into effect next Tuesday if it's not blocked by the courts would yank the license of any business knowingly employing illegals. In that respect, it's similar to hundreds of other state laws and local ordinances passed in the past year.

But its invitation to ordinary people to report to local authorities any businesses they believe employ illegals makes it a great vehicle for race-baiters and grudge-bearers.

Some Republicans, Karl Rove probably included, are tearing their hair. Rove and his former boss, George W. Bush, worked hard to appeal to the growing body of Latino voters. But like John McCain, they got ripped for their sponsorship of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that got filibustered to death by hard-liners.

And now that immigration is again a hot-button issue, Romney and Giuliani, among others, have taken a page from former California Gov. Pete Wilson's old 1994 playbook, trading short-term political gain for disastrous long-term losses in support from the growing ranks of Latino voters. "Some in the party seem pleased," said former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. "They should be terrified."

Until recently, McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were the honorable exceptions among the GOP candidates. Huckabee, who got whacked by Romney for backing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, replied, "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did." But since then, as he rose in the polls (and read the polls) he's signed on to his own version of the Tancredo creed. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, like Giuliani another recent convert who's read the same polls, is running for cover.

The damage is not only to rational discourse about immigration but in the futile diversion from the real sources of the real fears about off-shoring and job security, health care, corporate power and fraud and a long list of fading certainties that feed the issue. Sooner or later we'll probably look back at this episode with the same embarrassment and shame as we did the others, but it could be an ugly time until we get there.

E-mailPeter Schrag at