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Immigration Overkill

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

As every Republican knows, Democrats are short-sighted in their views on national security, pursuing antiwar arguments that are bound to come back and haunt them politically. This was the case with the clamor among Democrats to pull out of Vietnam and may be the case now as well with their calls for American troops to flee Iraq. The result of this antiwar noisemaking is a reputation for weakness on national security.

Yet Republicans are doing the same thing on another issue, trading away long-term gain for the immediate joy of pleasing voters who may (or may not) decide the winner of the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. That issue is immigration.

By dwelling, often emotionally, on the problem of illegal immigration as a paramount issue and as if nothing is being done to deal with it, Republicans are alienating Hispanic Americans, the fastest growing voting bloc in the country. What's worse is many Republicans are oblivious to this or insist that losing Hispanic voters doesn't really matter because they'll never be reliable Republican voters anyway. These Republicans buy the notion that a sizable majority of Hispanics are and always will be Democrats.

This defeatism is wrongheaded. Hispanics are not lost to Republicans, as President Bush showed by winning more than 40 percent of their votes in 2004 and half their votes in 1998 when he ran for re-election as governor of Texas. The fact is Hispanics are conservative on cultural issues, entrepreneurial on economics, and intensely patriotic. They are a winnable constituency for Republicans.

But not if Republicans continue to concentrate on bashing illegal immigrants, as the party's presidential candidates have. Just this week, Mitt Romney spent day after day zinging Rudy Guiliani for opposing deportation of illegal immigrants when he was mayor of New York. Guiliani fired back that Romney, while Massachusetts governor, had tolerated so-called sanctuary cities that protected illegals.

Two potential candidates, Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson, have increased their emphasis on illegal immigration. Gingrich declared himself "sickened" by the failure of Bush and Congress to confront the issue "while young Americans in our cities are massacred" by illegal immigrants. He was referring to the killing of three college students in Newark, New Jersey. An illegal immigrant is among those arrested in the murders.

Gingrich said Bush and Congress shouldn't have gone on vacation this month. And, rising to rhetorical heights, he said "the war here at home" against illegal immigrants is "even more deadly than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan." Whew!

There's a distinction to be made here between opposing the immigration reform bill that died in the Senate several weeks ago and the obsessive emphasis by Republicans since then on unlawful immigration. There were legitimate reasons for seeking to defeat the bill, though I favored it. But now the heated talk about illegals has drifted into demagoguery.

Which is why Republican national chairman Mel Martinez intervened this week to ask presidential candidates to cool their rhetoric. Martinez, a Cuban-American, is worried about driving Hispanic voters away from the Republican party and with good reason.

Illegal immigrants are an easy target, he said. And many Republicans act as if nothing is being done to impede their illegal entry into this country. In truth, the number of illegal immigrants has declined in the past several years and those detained at the border are now sent back, rather than released. Still, stronger steps to improve border security are needed.

A key question is why would Hispanics who are American citizens respond unfavorably to attacks on illegal immigrants? After all, they're here legally and polls show they oppose illegal entry.

The reason is simple: they see the issue as focusing entirely on Mexican and Central American immigrants. Illegals from other parts of the world who overstay their visas are largely ignored by Republican critics.

So the message to Hispanics — or at least the way they perceive it — is that Republicans don't want to see more members of your community pouring into this country. Republicans don't want them as workers or as neighbors and don't want them to have the opportunity to become citizens.

Maybe Hispanics shouldn't feel this way. Many Republicans argue that it's unfair for them to be cast in this light as if their objections are racial or ethnic. They oppose illegal immigrants, not immigrants in general. While that may be true, their fixation on the issue leads Hispanics to think otherwise.

Many Republicans may want their party to be famous for making illegal immigration a top priority and a passionate cause. But they should also recognize there's a political price to pay for this. As Karl Rove has said, the Republican party will gradually decline — and won't return as America's majority party — if it lets the Hispanic vote slip away. And it will if Republicans, like antiwar Democrats, permit short-term gain to threaten long-term gain.
By Fred Barnes

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