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Civil War within the GOP: Who Wins on Immigration?
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.

Biography There is an ongoing civil war within the Republican Party that will decide the future of immigration policy during the Bush Years. If the pro-immigration faction wins, we can expect President Bush to continue to press for reforms where he can and hold the line against attempts to roll back past gains. If the anti-immigration caucus prevails, we can expect not merely a toughening of current standards but the outright elimination of some visa categories or even an actual moratorium on immigration for a number of years. Frustrated by what seemed insuperable obstacles inside the Beltway before September 11th, the nativists now have new life and see in the resurgent fears over national security a way to legitimize what had only recently been dismissed as fringe viewpoints clothed in extremist rhetoric. The stakes are high indeed and the nation needs to understand what the battle is all about.

President Bush sees in the growing Hispanic vote a way to broaden his 2000 base and secure re-election in 2004. His support for an extension of 245(i) is a tangible symbol of this electoral strategy but it is more than that. It is also a way for Bush to tack back to the all-important political center and win over key swing voters by attacking extremists within his own party. Taking on Pat Buchanan over immigration may be for Bush what confronting Jessie Jackson over Sister Souljah was for Bill Clinton in 1992.

The electoral college map shows California with almost one fifth of the total number of votes necessary to win the White House. The Republicans cannot continue to be non-functional in this vital battleground state. The recent Republican track record in California is not encouraging. Bob Dole got 38% of the vote in 1996; Dan Lungren garnered only 38% in losing to current Governor Gray Davis in 1998 and George Bush managed only a bit higher in 2000 by attracting 40%. During this same period, California Republicans lost 3 seats in Congress, 2 seats in the State Senate and 5 Assembly seats. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Latino population in California over this decade surged by more than 3 million and Asians increased by nearly 1 million. Other core arenas, such as Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Arizona, also offer a treasure trove of Hispanic political gold. Texas and California have the two largest congressional delegations reflecting the population shifts recorded in the 2001 census.

Yet, there are some signs that not all in the GOP see Hispanics as the way to reverse losing the 2000 popular vote and securing majority party status for the next election and beyond. In the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in Texas, conservative Laredo millionaire Tony Sanchez won on a platform stressing cultural pride and the coming of age by Hispanic voters as a political force in a state that has recently been one of the most solidly Republican in the nation. At the same time, the House of Representatives approved a modest and highly flawed extension of 245(i) over the opposition of a clear majority of Republican members. In fact, the narrow victory was won only with the votes of Republican stalwarts such as Lamar Smith and Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin who have consistently favored tighter immigration restraints and would most certainly oppose any Bush attempt to push for a broader amnesty. Republicans cannot help but take pause when they read the results of a recent Zogby poll where 83% of Americans indicated that immigration laws were too lax.

September 11th has made it possible for the anti-immigration advocates to break out of their inside-the-beltway box and go out to the country on a rallying cry of fighting terrorism. The White House may not be able to deliver the political goods to push through its electoral outreach. Critics point to other polls that suggest Hispanic voters may be more interested in what matters to other Americans - education, crime, taxes, economic prosperity, health care - than they are swayed by the immigration strategy of either party. In a fascinating article by John O'Sullivan in the April 8, 2002 issue of National Review entitled "Hasta la Vista Baby: Bush's Hispanic Strategy Comes Unraveled," we learn of a recent study by political scientists James Gimpel and Karen Kaufman that showed not only that low-income Hispanics are staunch Democrats, a rather unsurprising conclusion, but that Hispanics actually became MORE Democratic the longer they stayed in the US. While Republican identification did rise with income, even at the highest levels Democrats retained a 10 point identification edge.

Hispanics were 12% of the Texas electorate in 1998 and are expected to be 20% within six years If other Hispanic politicians follow the Sanchez technique of stressing ethnic pride with low taxes, Texas could be in play even faster than that. As states like Texas and California become more important, and as more Hispanic immigrants become US citizens and register to vote, the political question of the day becomes who will benefit the most by this sea change. President Bush is gambling the future of his presidency on the answer. He may not be right. If the Bush Administration eventually decides that the electoral impact of high immigration is not to its advantage, if Hispanic voters continue to be more attracted by Democratic stands on mainstream economic and social issues than they are by Bush's pro-immigration symbolism, then even a pro-immigration President will have to reconsider whether continuing down this same road is good for America and, perhaps more importantly, for him.

The beauty of this fratricidal struggle from the President's vantage point is that he can win even while losing. For pro-immigration Republicans, and there are many with the Wall Street Journal as their house organ, the aggressive pursuit of such an agenda positions the GOP to become the party of the moderation regardless of whether Hispanics turn out in their favor. So, when we look at Bush and Fox getting together, let's remember that it is not just about the Hispanic vote; the real pot of gold is the political center, for that, my friends, is where elections are won or lost.

About The Author

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.