Posted on September 1, 2004

Open Borders, Closed Debate

Timothy P. Carney, National Review Online, Sep. 1

New York, N.Y. — If you read the New York Times on Tuesday, the only story at the platform hearings was that Republicans for Choice and the Log Cabin Republicans had trouble adding even modest changes to the Republican platform. Largely ignored was how advocates of tight border control and opponents of amnesty for illegal immigrants were repeatedly and swiftly blocked in their efforts.

Last Tuesday night, when platform delegates finally got copies of the platform draft as written by the Bush campaign, grass-roots conservatives were angry that the document explicitly endorsed the president’s “temporary worker program,” dubbed amnesty by its conservative critics.

One leading conservative activist noted that the GOP was adopting immigration language similar to Bill Clinton’s abortion language, calling for “the immigration system” to be “more legal, safe, orderly and humane.” Unlike Clinton on abortion, though, the platform certainly didn’t want immigration to be “rare.”

The platform calls for enabling illegal immigrants (of course never using that phrase) “to come out of the shadows and to participate legally in America’s economy.” In what would be a clear contradiction outside the Washington world of word-parsing, the platform then says: “We oppose amnesty because it would have the effect of encouraging illegal immigration.”

The political upside of this temporary-worker measure is two-fold for President Bush. As the plank’s emphasis on finding willing workers makes clear, legalizing these illegal workers wards off any disruption in the supply of cheap labor on which our economy (at least many businesses) may now be dependent. As the platform put it, “a growing economy requires a growing number of workers.”

Second, this is part of Bush’s attempt to woo Hispanic votes. From Madison Square Garden’s podium on Monday, Hispanic political activist and Bush fundraiser Fernando Mateo called for the temporary-worker program to ease “fear of deportation.” Mateo used to be a donor to Democrats; now he’s one of Bush’s greatest allies.

Back at the platform hearings last week, some delegates tried to strip out this language, objecting that Bush does not represent the grass roots. They failed miserably.

From there, the American Conservative Union and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum fought for less ambitious changes, most of which failed. Language to specify that illegal immigrants should not get Social Security benefits was rejected by the platform committee, with the explanation that the platform already demanded Social Security recipients have valid identification. This was a frustrating explanation considering an amendment was later rejected that would have opposed giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants.

Similarly rejected was an amendment to bar illegals from receiving in-state tuition. The final temporary-worker section remained almost untouched from its original form.

The national-security section of the platform contained some moderately tough language about stopping illegal border-crossing and expediting the deportation process, but Schafly and her allies left less than satisfied.

Perhaps more than any other issue, immigration drives a wedge between the party’s establishment and its grass roots. Bush’s business friends need the cheap labor. Bush’s political advisors tell him he needs Mateo.

Conservative activists and voters throughout the country see mass border-crossing and lax enforcement of immigration laws as threats to safety, security, neighborhoods, culture, and job availability.

Putting this non-amnesty amnesty in the platform and on the podium may be a political mistake. Arizona and Nevada should not be at risk for Bush, but mass immigration creates two political problems for him that make these states winnable for Kerry.

First, if Democrats can get these new Americans — legal and illegal — to vote, they will vote heavily Democrat regardless of what Mateo tells them. Second, conservatives in those states now have one more reason (and a big one) to resent Bush and possibly stay home or vote third party.

The anger comes not just from the stance Bush and the GOP establishment take, but from their seeming disdain for dissidents (Karl Rove told Rep. Tom Tancredo to never darken the door of the White House again) and opposition to debate.

The White House’s heavy hand on this issue might stem from the understanding that their side would lose in an intramural GOP debate on immigration. No one criticizes the White House for having its own agenda distinct from the party’s, but the process is frustrating. While bringing democracy to the Middle East, Bush might consider trying it within the GOP.