Arizona Daily Star
President Bush's Republican Party's love affair with Hispanic voters may soon come to an end: Judging from the xenophobic measures proposed by conservative Republicans in Congress last week, many Latino voters will think twice before casting a vote for Republicans in the 2006 congressional elections.
The massive anti-immigration package presented to Congress late last week by House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., contained some of the most radical anti-immigration measures ever, including depriving babies of undocumented workers of their right to U.S. citizenship.
While that proposal didn't fly, the House on Friday approved other draconian GOP-sponsored measures, such as a proposal to turn undocumented migrants into criminals — which would allow the police to ask both illegal entrants and U.S. citizens for proof of citizenship at any time — and a plan to build new fences in several areas along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Besides representing a monumental waste of money (more about this later), the proposed measures are likely to erode part of the recent gains made by Republicans among Hispanics.
Bush won the 2004 election in part with an unprecedented 40 percent slice of the Hispanic vote, nearly twice what Republicans got in the 1996 election.
Bush has opposed the bill, saying enforcement measures should be accompanied by a temporary guest workers' program. But the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, perhaps taking advantage of Bush's political weakness, steamrolled the bill through the House.
Why did they do it? Among the possible reasons:
● It's a popular crusade in U.S. border states, which are suffering from congested hospitals, roads and public schools because of the massive influx of Latin American migrants.
Several fear-mongering media celebrities — CNN's Lou Dobbs and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh among them — are building a following by raising the "broken borders" theme in their daily broadcasts.
● Some Republicans may want to use illegal immigration as a smoke screen to drive public attention away from the Iraq war fiasco, the Hurricane Katrina mishandlings and the corruption scandals around former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as we get closer to the 2006 and 2008 elections.
● Many Republicans, fearful of a debacle in upcoming elections, may want to use the Hispanic threat theme as a way to get disillusioned conservatives to the polls, much as they did with the gay marriage issue to increase turnout from churchgoers in 2004.
But pollsters warn that, even if these measures don't pass the Senate as expected, isolationist Republicans are playing with fire.
Their crusade is likely to trigger an angry response from Hispanics, much like what happened when former California Gov. Pete Wilson lashed out against illegal immigrants in the mid-1990s.
"If the Republicans come across like they are just bashing immigrants, there is a potential for a strong negative reaction," says Roberto Suro, of the Pew Hispanic Center, which conducts some of the most comprehensive nationwide polls of Hispanics.
According to a recent Pew Center poll, about 80 percent of Latinos believe immigrants help strengthen the U.S. economy, and 14 percent say they are a burden.
While there is some support for anti-immigration measures among U.S-born Latinos, it tends to vanish when Hispanic voters smell racist motivations, other polls show.
"The image this (immigration bill) projects among Hispanics will be disastrous," says Sergio Bendixen, a Hispanic community pollster who works mostly for the Democratic Party. "All the gains made by President Bush in the Hispanic community may evaporate."
My conclusion: The GOP-sponsored anti-immigration bill is a waste of money, because no 10-mile-long fence along the 2,000-mile border will stop illegal immigration as long as the income gap between the United States and Latin America remains so wide.
The only solution to the reduce illegal immigration will be launching a European Union-style "Community of the Americas" in which Washington would offer aid to Latin American countries in exchange for commitments of economic discipline and free-market policies.
If Republicans come across as the party that wants to turn Spanish-speaking people into criminal suspects who can be stopped at any corner by police demanding proof of citizenship, they can say adios to a significant portion of the Hispanic vote.
Contact Andrés Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald at firstname.lastname@example.org.