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Just as Democrats were poised to deliver the 2010 elections to Republicans, Arizona’s ill-advised new immigration law exposed, once again, the Republican Party’s Achilles’ heel.
If Democratic majorities survive the backlash against big government in this election cycle, it will be because Republicans, the party of the right, became the Party of White.
The transformation is happening before our eyes. Whites, who are 65 percent of the U.S. population today, accounted for 89 percent of John McCain’s votes in the 2008 presidential election. That is based on exit polls showing that McCain won 55 percent of the white vote.
A party that alienates racial minorities will justly be made a political minority, so the Republican response to what’s happening in Arizona will be a defining moment.
While there are many policies that undercut the support of minorities for Republicans–from opposition to affirmative action to regional support for the Confederate flag–immigration is clearly the brewing Republican problem among Hispanic Americans. Republicans like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer have too often appeared hostile to immigrants.
One can hardly blame Arizona for passing the new law making immigration offenses a state crime and empowering local law enforcement officials to question somebody upon “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in this country illegally. Arizona is, after all, on the front line of the battle against illegal immigration, its long border with Mexico poorly defended by the federal government for decades. Half of all illegal border crossings occur in Arizona, according to the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.
While many of these immigrants are simply seeking a better life, the tidal wave of Mexicans entering Arizona has stressed government services to the breaking point and increased crime.
Democrats, as expected, are helping whip up fears that Arizona’s new “reasonable suspicion” standard might be merely a front for racial profiling. President Barack Obama said the law creates a climate where, “suddenly, if you don’t have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you’re going to be harassed.”
Some Republicans haven’t helped their cause. Governor Jim Gibbons of Nevada seemed to come right out and endorse racial profiling. “If you look like and act like a terrorist, if you’re coming across as a bad person, you’re going to do harm to our citizens, whether it’s deal drugs, commit crime or commit a terrorist act,” he said. “Absolutely we ought to profile everybody that looks like a terrorist. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Republicans should stop stepping on their own toes, especially because they, not the Democrats, offer a vision of America that should be most attractive to would-be immigrants.
Under the Democratic worldview, which matches that of much of Europe, the federal government erects a generous safety net under all citizens, which of course includes the poor. That safety net is unsustainable if paired with an open immigration policy. A country can have a generous safety net, or a welcoming policy toward immigrants, but not both–at least not over the long term.
In 1994, Harvard economist George Borjas showed that immigrants in the U.S. received 13.1 percent of government cash assistance while making up only 8.4 percent of households. And migration responds to such generosity.
The nanny-state policies of U.S. Democrats threaten to fundamentally change the character of our nation. Republican small-government policies are essential if we are to remain friendly to immigrants.
A Gallup Poll last week found that of those who knew about the Arizona crackdown on illegal immigrants, 51 percent supported it and 39 percent opposed it. Another Gallup Poll last year showed that Americans, by a wide margin of 58 percent to 36 percent, continue to say that immigration in general is a good thing for the country.
Therein lies the opportunity.
Republicans need to be against illegal immigration, in favor of legal immigration–and much more emphatic about the latter. Say what you will about the merits of Arizona’s new law: its timing was awful, politically, and its advocates have done a terrible job of distinguishing illegal immigration from immigration in general. Savvy Republicans would seek to reassure legal immigrants about their place in this country while exposing Democrats for advocating policies that make America’s welcome mat unsustainable.
Ronald Reagan said the U.S. was traditionally the land of opportunity, where “the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Republicans need to rally around that view of America, fast. The November midterms are just around the corner.
Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies at AEI.
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