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The Return of Immigration As a Wedge Issue

New America Media, Commentary, Angelo Falcón

Editor’s Note: Contrary to popular wisdom after the 2008 elections, immigration as a wedge issue can restore Republicans to power, says a new report from The American Cause. Political scientist Angelo Falcón disputes that but says it would be unwise to dismiss The American Cause as a fringe element, either. Falcón is president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), a policy center founded in 1982 in New York City that focuses on Latino policy issues. Immigration Matters reflects the views of leading immigration rights advocacy groups.

Pat and Bay Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, James Pinkerton and company seek to tell the Republican Party what they need to do to win back power in 2010: use immigration as a wedge issue. Through a 16-year-old outfit called The American Cause, founded by Pat Buchanan and friends, they are promoting “traditional American values” rooted in the “conservative principles of national sovereignty, economic patriotism, limited government, and individual freedom.” Hey, wait a minute, isn’t this why the Republicans lost the White House and Congress last year?

Well, they argue, that’s the Democrats and the left promoting one of those cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies (you know, when correlation does not imply causation), according to a new report, “Immigration and the 2008 Republican Defeat.” Written by The American Cause Executive Director Marcus Epstein (who also heads anti-immigration congressman Tom Tancredo’s Team America and is vice president of something modestly called Youth for Western Civilization), the report asserts that the immigration issue was, in fact, not detrimental to Republican candidates. It concludes that “immigration control could be the issue to bring the GOP back into the majority.”

Epstein reviews 27 congressional races in order to challenge as a propter hoc fallacy the conventional wisdom that Republicans who lost races were the anti-amnesty, border enforcement hardliners and the Democrats were comprehensive immigration reform advocates. The problem with his analysis is that with both Democrats and Republicans downplaying or strategically repositioning the issue of immigration, there is a certain vagueness in the positions taken by most candidates on this issue, as well as in the small number of cases he examines.

About all he documents is how both Republican and Democratic candidates are ideologically slippery when running for office. I kinda knew that before reading this report. In fact, he performed a service to progressives by clearly identifying unprincipled Democrats in Congress worth looking at closely on the issue of immigration. So that’s pretty helpful. Thanks, Marcus.

But the real question is: How seriously should progressives and immigrant advocates take these American Cause people? I would prefer to ignore them at this point and hope they just fade--or immigrate--away due to their own irrelevance. But it is probably more prudent not to ignore them.

The New York Times was alarmed enough about what these people represent to publish an editorial critical of the group titled, “The Nativists Are Restless,” (February 1, 2009), with some follow-ups on the Times’ blog pages. The editorial points out that U.S history teaches us that “racism has a nasty habit of never going away, no matter how much we may want it to, and thus the perpetual need for vigilance.”

I was shocked a couple of years ago when conservative commentator Linda Chavez wrote a column entitled, “Latino Fear and Loathing” (, May 25, 2007), in which she took many of her conservative and Republican friends to task for their anti-Latino attitudes clothed in more innocuous immigration-control language. She pointed out that, “we need to quit pretending that the ‘No Amnesty’ crowd is anything other than what it is: a tiny group of angry, frightened and prejudiced loudmouths back by political opportunists who exploit them.” Wow!

Within a few weeks, though, Chavez backed off, stating, “(o)n reflection, I went too far” ( June 11, 2007). But she expressed her personal frustration (“There are only so many times that you can be told to ‘go back to Mexico’ and far worse before your blood starts to boil”). She concluded that, “The immigration debate has stirred up some pretty ugly sentiments and conservatives need to be especially careful in this regard. We are, after all, the ones who argue for colorblind policies.”

This American Cause crowd apparently remains unconvinced and undeterred. But do they remain relevant? It is important for progressives not to underestimate their impact on the Republican and conservative agendas under an Obama Administration and a Democrati-controlled Congress. The main and most obvious reason is that with an economic crisis here and globally, the racist scapegoating that underlies their take on “traditional American values” will continue to have some currency. The right has also maintained an impressive media and policy advocacy infrastructure that is personified by Rush Limbaugh’s continued influence, to take but one example.

In the Latino community, there is also a need to closely watch a growing new conservative movement that had been fed by eight years of Republican dominance with a president who was trying to develop an “Hispanic strategy.” There are now conservative Latino policy centers, like The Latino Coalition, the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, the Congressional Hispanic Conference and others, which along with the first black chair of the Republican Party, could influence how the GOP and conservatives will address the immigration debate. With its dramatic population growth and diversity, as well as a growing middle class, the Latino community is becoming more ideologically diverse. Let’s see if Pat and Bay will offer them admission into American Cause or keep theirs a white-only club.

With Obama in the White House, hopes for a more sensible comprehensive approach to immigration reform are warranted. But as we have seen in his first few weeks in office, the need for vigilance and creative grassroots organizing is as important as ever. Si, se puede, but it ain’t automatic.

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