Massachusetts has become the latest battleground in the war against illegal immigration—- a war that has political implications. Gov. Mitt Romney entered into an agreement this week that will give his state police the power to detain and arrest illegal immigrants.
The new agreement with the Department of Homeland Security gives a special squad of state troopers the power to arrest illegal immigrants without a warrant. And it puts Romney, considered a presidential hopeful, firmly in the camp of those politicians who want to be seen as “tough on immigration.”
Romney is not the first governor to move against illegal immigrants this way. Five other states have entered into the same federal program: Florida, Alabama, California, North Carolina and Arizona. However, he is the first likely presidential candidate to enter into this program, thrusting the issue of illegal immigration further into the forefront of the 2008 campaign.
Romney has been setting the stage for his stance against illegal immigration for quite some time. He supported building a fence on the Mexican border, as well as sending the National Guard to protect the border. He scoffed at granting amnesty to the some 11 million illegal immigrants already here as outlined in the McCain-Kennedy bill.
He also vetoed a bill in June 2004 that would have let the children of illegal immigrants pay the same lower tuition at state schools as Massachusetts residents.
Though Romney’s tough stance on immigration might very well help him win a presidential nomination in the Republican Party, what stance will prove politic for Democrat hopefuls is less clear. Iowa governor and ‘08 candidate Tom Vilsack, for one, seems caught between two different approaches.
Vilsack is undoubtedly softer on immigration. In fact, in 1998 he took on an initiative to attract and accommodate immigrants in order to sustain a dwindling labor force in Iowa. The initiative included a provision to block federal quotas as well as a proposal to establish welcome centers to aid immigrants, legally and culturally. His stance drew criticism from some anti-immigration groups.
According to Mark Grey, the director of the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration, Vilsack later dropped the immigration issue because it was jeopardizing his re-election prospects. In March 2002 he even went so far as to pass a law making English the state’s official language to win back some of these critics.
Vilsack has since said he regrets his decision to pass the “English as Official Language” law. He has apologized to Hispanic groups in the area to make amends and perhaps to gain their vote in 2008. However, he’s made no move to repeal the law—highlighting his public ambivalence on the issue.
Vilsack, again demonstrating the difficulty of taking a firm stance on immigration, issued a press release this week calling for tightly-controlled borders—- but also for government support of the children of illegal immigrants who live in Iowa.
Grey notes that Vilsack, like Romney, has seen the writing on the wall: the immigration issue will be crucial in 2008. However, for Vilsack and Democrats like him, the party line is not nearly so clear.