Election Immigration Debate Turning ‘Offensive’

Marc Caputo, Miami Herald, August 15, 2006

The caller to the talk-radio show discussing “the illegal-alien invasion” listed the three strikes against Republican Will McBride’s campaign for the U.S. Senate:

“You’re a lawyer for one thing. You’re young. And you’re Hispanic.”

That last comment troubled McBride—partly because it’s true. For the 34-year-old son of a Mexican field worker has found he’s campaigning against GOP icon Katherine Harris, two other little-known candidates and an insidious challenge: the “offensive” tone over immigration from a minority of Republicans.

And it worries not just McBride, but also Republican leaders seeking to protect the GOP’s historic gains with Hispanics. Polls show Hispanics nationwide moved 32 percentage points in the GOP’s favor over the past three presidential elections—the nation’s largest demographic electoral shift.

This trend could slow or perhaps reverse after this campaign season’s debate over immigration, which the Republican-controlled Congress raised amid bad news of lobbying scandals and Iraq. One Democratic poll says that, for the first time, Hispanic voters rank “discrimination” as their second-highest concern, behind immigration.

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“People do notice and are very aware of the mean-spirited nature of the whole debate,” said Miami state Rep. Juan Zapata, the only Florida legislator of Colombian descent.

“It seems extremists have taken this to promote their agenda. People are listening to this. And an issue like this will bear scars or good will for years to come.”

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Harris warned the crowd that the Senate bill “gives them more rights and privileges than you and I have. How many of you would like to only pay three of the last five years in taxes and decide which of those three you would like to do?” The audience chuckled.

And she asked if it was fair for “those illegals . . . to attend our universities at state resident rates? Or be entitled to years of social security that they earned illegally?”

TOUGH QUESTIONS

During a question-and-answer period, McBride was hit with this: How can he say he opposes amnesty when he appeared at a May 1 march with Immigrants United for Freedom, a group that finds the Senate bill too harsh? McBride, a personal-injury lawyer and sometime-immigration attorney, said he helped people there because he’s bilingual and knows the law.

Then came this question to McBride from a woman named Jackie Brownhill, a Harris volunteer who later told The Miami Herald that the campaign put her up to it: Why did you change your last name from “Rodriguez?” Brownhill later said McBride “doesn’t look American,” according to the St. Petersburg Times.

“I found it highly offensive. I found it to be an attack on my heritage. I was insulted,” said McBride, noting no one in his family was named Rodriguez. “It was something to show I was Hispanic—and that somehow it would be a negative.”

But he acknowledges such tactics wouldn’t be used if they weren’t viewed as effective.

Democrats say this debate could have the same effect nationally that the anti-immigration Proposition 187 had in California, which inflamed Hispanics and made the state more Democratic.

“This is Prop. 187 on steroids,” said Joe Garcia, the former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation who now heads Hispanic outreach for the Washington-based New Democratic Network.

“The fascinating thing is this has brought the xenophobes out of the closet. The tone is ugly and scary and it has clashed with President Bush’s drive for openness,” Garcia said.

“Why do you think Bush has fought this from some of the nuts of his own party in the House? This could reverse all of his gains.”

From 2000 to 2004, Bush increased his share of the Florida Hispanic vote from 49 percent to 56 percent, according to the state GOP’s exit polling data.

Though Garcia says he disagrees with those numbers, he says polls point to a general Republican success nationwide when it comes to Hispanics: 40 percent voted for the Republican in 2004 compared to only 21 percent in 1996. During the same period, support for Democratic presidential candidates dropped from 72 percent to 59 percent.

President Bush furthered the gains with an aggressive bilingual outreach campaign that includes Spanish-fluent Gov. Jeb Bush and appeals even more to new citizens. The Democratic Network’s polls show George W. Bush came within just four percentage points of John Kerry when it came to voters in Spanish-dominant households.

And some Hispanics are more conservative than Bush on immigration. Consider Eduardo Montalvo, an Osceola County school board candidate from Venezuela, who fretted in a Spanish-language paper about the “subversive attack from the Third World [that brings] poverty, violence, crime and prostitution.”

Montalvo was savaged for his opinions.

He said: “if you talk about this issue, you will have problems with Hispanic voters. Hispanic voters will not support you.”

A new poll of 600 Spanish-speaking voters from the Democratic Network bears this out, showing for the first time that Spanish-language voters are acutely concerned about discrimination and that, if a presidential election were held today, Democrats would enjoy a 36 percentage-point lead among Spanish speakers.

Miami state Rep. David Rivera, a top advisor to incoming state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, said he’s concerned enough that he has introduced the immigration issue at focus groups convened as part of Rubio’s 100 Ideas forum.

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