Posted on November 23, 2005

Immigration Is Poised to Become a Hot Topic for 2006 Races

Louis Jacobson, Roll Call (Washington, DC), Nov. 16

There’s a growing feeling that the battle over illegal immigration will influence the 2006 election cycle. That’s why we’re making it the inaugural topic in a new recurring feature, “Hot Topics.”

The idea is to highlight an issue that’s likely to shape many competitive races across the country. Each Hot Topic column will discuss up to a dozen or so races that could be shaped by the issue in question.

The debate over immigration is both evolving and volatile, but fundamentally, the tension is within the Republican Party. A pro-business camp, generally in tune with President Bush, emphasizes the value of immigrants to the national economy. Countering them is an aggressive grass-roots movement that decries the cost of providing state and local services to new arrivals.

Democrats and liberal groups often line up alongside business on this issue, but fissures — including some among Latinos — could break open once Congress takes up the issue in the coming months.

Immigration is already making waves in border states such as Arizona, where voters last year passed a tough-on-immigration ballot initiative, and where the Minuteman border-patrol project, run by private citizens, has enjoyed strong support.

“I think it will be one of the most dominating issues in play next year,” said Stuart Goodman, a Republican lobbyist in Phoenix. “It used to be that you could count on discussions of education and tax policy as stalwarts of candidate rhetoric. But in Arizona now, you need to include immigration at the top of that list.”

The issue is also having an effect elsewhere. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 22 states are experiencing higher growth rates among foreign-born populations than are the six traditional immigrant destinations — California, Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.

One is Virginia, where the recent gubernatorial election saw Republican Jerry Kilgore slam Democrat Tim Kaine in TV ads for not being critical enough of efforts by the suburb of Herndon to build a center where immigrant day-laborers could find work. Kilgore lost, but the issue attracted significant attention.

“I can’t imagine this will be the only time we see those sorts of ads,” said John Gay, co-chairman of the business-backed Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.

Other nontraditional destinations are seeing similar upticks in political activity. In Colorado, activists are circulating a ballot initiative that would deny services to illegal immigrants.

And in Wisconsin, a group called the Coalition for America’s Families recently ran TV ads blasting a budget proposal by Gov. Jim Doyle (D) — who’s in a tight re-election race — that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college. In the ad, a Hispanic woman identified as a legal immigrant argues that children of illegals should not be given the same taxpayer-funded benefits she’s earned by playing by the rules.

Of course, illegal immigration — and political fighting over it — is nothing new. But while Americans’ border-security fears have risen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, immigration has climbed in importance primarily due to the perceived impact on state and local services.

“More Americans have felt the fallout — kids sitting in classes that are overcrowded with illegal aliens’ children, long lines at the DMV because illegal immigrants are getting driver’s licenses,” said Susan Tully, the national field director for the hard-line Federation for American Immigration Reform. “You’re seeing the innate unfairness of illegal aliens getting certain benefits.”