The Repub­li­can rage over im­mi­gra­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

Repub­li­can Sens. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina and Saxby Cham­b­liss of Ge­or­gia were booed at their re­spec­tive state party con­ven­tions May 20 for sup­port­ing a com­pro­mise im­mi­gra­tion bill. Their spe­cific sin was col­lab­o­rat­ing with the lib­eral lion of the Se­nate, Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy. But be­hind the cat­calls was Repub­li­can rage over un­doc­u­mented for­eign­ers, a sen­ti­ment GOP law­mak­ers must ei­ther ap­pease or risk dire con­se­quences.

Why are the party faith­ful through­out the coun­try so in­censed by im­mi­gra­tion? When I asked Mr. Gra­ham, he quoted from a fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­port on the new ar­rivals to this coun­try, “largely un­skilled la­bor­ers” and heav­ily il­lit­er­ate: “The new im­mi­gra­tion has pro­voked a wide­spread feel­ing of ap­pre­hen­sion as to its ef­fect on the eco­nomic and so­cial wel­fare of the coun­try.” The re­port, by the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion Com­mis­sion, was dated 1911.

When Mr. Gra­ham re­turned to Wash­ing­ton on May 21 as the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate be­gan, he read the 96-year-old quote into the Se­nate record to demon­strate that fear of for­eign­ers is not new for Amer­i­cans. This na­tion of im­mi­grants has greeted suc­ces­sive waves of new­com­ers with ap­pre­hen­sion stoked by dem­a­gogues. It has over­come such past xeno­pho­bic im­pulses. But that will be more dif­fi­cult in an era of In­ter­net blog­gers and ra­dio talk­ers, with the Repub­li­can Party in trou­ble and seek­ing a uni­fy­ing is­sue at the grass roots and with the Demo­cratic Party sens­ing their ad­ver­sary’s weak­ness and mov­ing in for the kill.

Messrs. Gra­ham and Chamb- liss, both up for re-elec­tion next year, were un­pre­pared for the hos­til­ity they en­coun­tered at their state party con­ven­tions. At Columbia, S.C., del­e­gates erupted in boos when Mr. Gra­ham men­tioned Teddy Kennedy’s name. Mr. Cham­b­liss’s ap­par­ent prox­im­ity to Mr. Kennedy in a pho­to­graph evoked boo­ing at Du­luth, Ga. Un­ac­cus­tomed to such treat­ment, Mr. Cham­b­liss ex­pressed his re­sent­ment to Se­nate col­leagues back in Wash­ing­ton. Mr. Gra­ham was not happy with his ju­nior South Carolina col­league, Sen. Jim DeMint, for play­ing to the con­ven­tion crowd with anti-im­mi­gra­tion or­a­tory.

Nor was Mr. Gra­ham happy with the per­for­mance in Columbia by Mr. DeMint’s can­di­date for pres­i­dent, Mitt Rom­ney. The for­mer gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts won cheers by claim­ing the Se­nate com­pro­mise con­sti­tutes “amnesty” — the word guar­an­teed to rouse Repub­li­can au­di­ences. Only two years ago, Mr. Rom­ney sup­ported a less re­stric­tive bill passed by the Se­nate on grounds it did not con­sti­tute “amnesty.” Sen. John McCain, who sup­ports the Se­nate com­pro­mise and is Mr. Gra­ham’s choice for pres­i­dent, said Mon­day: “Maybe I should wait a few weeks and see if [Mr. Rom­ney’s po­si­tion] changes.”

No­body can tes­tify bet­ter than Rep. Mike Pence, a na­tion­ally renowned con­ser­va­tive, how dan- ger­ous this is­sue is for a Repub­li­can. In 2006, Mr. Pence brought a cascade of abuse on him for propos­ing an im­mi­gra­tion com­pro­mise. He held his ground, re­call­ing his Ir­ish im­mi­grant grand­fa­ther. But two weeks ago, he re­jected the new Se­nate com­pro­mise as “amnesty” though it re­sem­bles his own plan.

Many Repub­li­cans reach for an anti-im­mi­gra­tion life­line be­cause of the party’s plight. Bur­dened with an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent and an un­pop­u­lar war, the GOP can­not claim to be the party of lim­ited gov­ern­ment and con­trolled spend­ing. But im­mi­grant-bash­ing di­vides rather than unites Repub­li­cans as the South Carolina and Ge­or­gia con­ven­tions showed. In a re­cent closed-door meet­ing of the House’s con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina raised the dan­ger of re­sem­bling South Africa’s Na­tional Party ad­vo­cat­ing apartheid.

Repub­li­can Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, while prob­ing for the com­pro­mise’s weak spots in Se­nate de­bate on May 22, warned of “cul­tural” change re­sult­ing from a flood of low-in­come im­mi­grants. That re­calls the 1911 re­port of the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion Com­mis­sion (headed by an old-fash­ioned Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tive, Sen. William P. Dillingham of Ver­mont) as­sert­ing that the “pro­por­tion of the more se­ri­ous crimes of homi­cide, black­mail and rob­bery [. . .] is greater among the for­eign born,” who also refuse to learn the English lan­guage.

In read­ing part of Dillingham’s re­port into the Se­nate record, Mr. Gra­ham de­clared that th­ese im­mi­grants who were “ru­in­ing Amer­ica” fa­thered the “great­est gen­er­a­tion.” That im­mi­grant wave in­cluded my grand­fa­ther, a Rus­sian Im­pe­rial army vet­eran work­ing on the John Deere trac­tor as­sem­bly line in Mo­line, Ill., as an un­skilled, un­doc­u­mented alien who could not speak English. Re­fut­ing Dillingham, he was an Amer­i­can pa­triot proud of a son who fought with the U.S. in­fantry through Africa and Italy in World War II.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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