Latino Clout, Improved Economy Soften GOP Stance on Immigration

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

It hasn't attracted as much attention as his astonishing fund-raising numbers, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush's efforts to court Latino voters--complete with trademark exchanges in Spanish--is turning heads across the GOP. So much so that it's obscuring the larger picture.

On issues relating to immigration in general, and Latinos in particular, it's not just Bush pushing for a new direction; the GOP as a whole is executing a remarkably rapid reversal.

Three years ago, the Republican Party looked like it wanted to roll up the borders; now most party leaders are pursuing a more balanced approach to illegal immigration and are rushing to greet legal immigrants, preferably in Spanish. That points toward more competition for Latino votes in 2000--and a more welcoming political culture for the nearly 10% of Americans (the most since the 1920s) who are foreign-born.

Two factors largely explain the change. Low unemployment has reduced the audience for an anti-immigration message because it's salved fears that immigrants (whether legal or not) are taking American jobs. Even more importantly, the flirtation with nativism obliterated GOP support among Latino voters, especially in 1996.

Bob Dole, the GOP's 1996 nominee, drew just 21% of Latino votes--down from Ronald Reagan's 37% in 1984. That exodus contributed to President Clinton's stunning '96 victories in Arizona and Florida and his landslide in California. Gray Davis' crushing victory in California's gubernatorial race last fall deepened GOP fears that Latinos could cement a generation of Democratic dominance in the state.

Democracy works. These political debacles shifted the balance of power inside the GOP away from the anti-immigration forces toward those which had always resisted the nativist current. In particular, influence has moved from California Republicans (who generally define the hard line on immigration) toward GOP leaders from other border states (such as Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain) where these issues traditionally have not proved as polarizing.

The result is a vivid change in direction. In 1996, anti-immigration sentiment was so strong in the GOP that even legal immigrants came under fire. Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan led the way by demanding a five-year ban on legal immigration, but even Dole pushed for a "modest, temporary reduction" in new arrivals.

Proposals to significantly reduce the level of legal immigration drew enough support to reach the floor in both chambers of Congress (and though each measure was defeated, two-thirds of House Republicans backed the cuts). And both chambers voted to cut off most legal immigrants who were not yet citizens from social welfare programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Consider the picture now. Under pressure from Clinton, the GOP-controlled Congress since 1997 has restored about half the dollar value of the benefits for legal immigrants it eliminated in 1996; McCain now is sponsoring a bipartisan bill to restore health benefits for more children of noncitizens and pregnant women.

Neither Bush nor his closest pursuers--McCain, businessman Steve Forbes, and former Red Cross chief Elizabeth Hanford Dole--want to reduce legal immigration; some have already urged that more highly skilled immigrants be allowed in, as high-tech employers are urging.

"There's a greater realization of the distinction now between legal immigration and illegal immigration," says Forbes, one of the few pro-immigrant voices in the 1996 GOP race.

Actually, the change is broader than that. All the GOP contenders still promise to crack down on illegal immigration. But many have rejected the most polarizing means to deter illegal immigrants that the party touted in 1996. Not only Buchanan but also Bob Dole that year ardently embraced legislation that would have allowed states to bar the children of illegal immigrants from public schools--an idea plucked from California's Proposition 187.

Though Dole couldn't persuade the Senate to go along, the Republican House twice voted to approve the change. Later, the '96 GOP platform endorsed a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States--an idea even Dole renounced.

This year's leaders--Bush, Forbes and McCain--all oppose both the citizenship amendment and removing the children of illegal immigrants from public schools; Dole hasn't taken specific positions, but her general statements on immigration suggest she's unlikely to back them. Both of these ideas are dead in Congress as well, and the citizenship amendment seems unlikely to survive in the GOP platform.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see it gone," says Bush advisor Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

The debates on immigration aren't over--either within the GOP or between the parties. Buchanan recently fired a shot across Bush's bow when he accused him of not displaying enough concern about illegal immigration. And the GOP is still divided on cultural issues closely related to immigration. While both Bush and McCain oppose a ban on bilingual education, Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander still want to end it, as California's Proposition 227 has mandated.

Meanwhile, debates over restoring social welfare benefits to legal immigrants will highlight continuing differences between the parties; it's no coincidence that Vice President Al Gore announced administration proposals this year to restore another $1.3 billion in food, disability and health care benefits for legal immigrants.

Though Bush in 1997 used state money to help elderly and disabled immigrants cut off from federal food stamps, he'll have difficulty following Gore that far. Democrats will also stress broader economic initiatives--such as raising the minimum wage--that can help new immigrants climb toward the middle class.

All of these specifics matter. But the tenor of this overall debate may matter more. "The pendulum swung very far to the right; now it's swinging back to the middle," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "It's gone from being a race to the bottom [to get tough on immigrants] to who can be more pro-immigrant, without appearing to be soft on uncontrolled immigration."

That's a healthy change at a time when America, as much as at any moment this century, is once again a nation of immigrants.


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