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Despite Danger, GOP Tees Up Immigration as 2008 Wedge Issue

For the umpteenth time, American voters this year have rejected a nativist approach to illegal immigration. It ought to be a warning to Republicans: Don’t make this your 2008 wedge issue. [IMGCAP(1)]

Election results on Tuesday, especially in Virginia and New York state, also should encourage nervous Democrats that they can support comprehensive immigration reform — stronger enforcement plus earned legalization — and prevail.

To temper legitimate concern in the country about the local burdens resulting from failure of the U.S. government to control its borders, both parties in Congress should extend federal “impact aid” to communities whose schools and health facilities are especially affected.

Polling on immigration consistently shows that large majorities of Americans — two-thirds, in a September ABC survey — believe the U.S. is not doing enough to curb illegal immigration, but that almost as many, 58 percent in that poll, support allowing illegal immigrants to earn their way to legal status.

However, a fervent minority — figured at a third of Republicans in one private poll — opposes “amnesty” and has had its views amplified by right-wing radio talk-show hosts. Republicans in Congress have bowed to the pressure, and GOP presidential candidates increasingly are pandering, as well.

Even though past election results overwhelmingly indicate that enforcement-only campaigns don’t succeed — indeed, by offending Hispanics, pose a long-term threat to the GOP — Republicans seem bent on making illegal immigration a centerpiece of their 2008 campaigns.

GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson are accusing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani of having run a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, and Giuliani is trying to turn the fire onto Democrats. At this rate, things could get ugly next year, with Republicans waving the “A” word — “Amnesty” — like a bloody shirt.

The latest election results demonstrate anew that it doesn’t work. In Virginia, where Democrat Tim Kaine was elected governor two years ago despite late anti-immigrant attacks by his GOP opponent, nativist campaigns failed in key state Senate and county board races.

In Fairfax County, the GOP candidate for board chairman, Gary Baise, campaigned to make Fairfax as immigrant-unfriendly as nearby Prince William County. He garnered 36 percent of the vote against incumbent Democrat Gerald Connolly.

It’s true that in Prince William, county board members bent on ousting illegal immigrants by denying them public benefits and having them arrested were handily re-elected. But Democratic state Sen. Charles Colgan also won, despite efforts by his GOP opponent to capitalize on Prince William’s national anti-immigrant notoriety.

In New York, various Democratic county officials survived GOP efforts to link them to Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s unpopular proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Most of the Democrats opposed Spitzer’s plan — as even many immigrant advocates say Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) should have in last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia.

“That’s a loser,” said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum. “[Clinton] should have said, ‘This is a mess. The borders are out of control. I understand that people are upset. In understand what Gov. Spitzer is trying to do, but it’s not a good solution.’ She should have gone to the heart of the issue, but, boy did she step in it.”

Advocacy of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants arguably was responsible for the close-call 51 percent showing last month of Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) in a Massachusetts special election — although Gov. Deval Patrick got the same percentage in her district in 2006.

The Tsongas near-thing caused shudders among some top Democrats, including House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who told The Washington Post that immigration “has emerged as the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”

But Sharry insists that “if you have an either-or debate on border enforcement, enforcement is going to win. If you have an enforcement-plus-legalization debate, Democrats can win, but they actually have to get out in front of it and take the initiative.”

That’s proved true in Arizona — the border-state “ground zero” in the immigration wars — where Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) got re-elected in 2006 by a 2-to-1 margin against an anti-immigrant GOP opponent. She is a strong advocate of federal impact aid to help communities cope with immigration burdens.

Also in Arizona in 2006, Democrats beat anti-immigrant firebrands J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf. After those elections, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in advocating comprehensive immigration reform, though on the presidential campaign trail McCain has shifted to an “enforcement-first” stance.

In 2006, other appeals to nativism failed in Indiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida and Delaware, and — after House Republicans voted to make merely being an illegal immigrant a felony — the GOP percentage of Hispanic votes dropped from 40 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2006.

Numerous Republicans, including former White House aides Karl Rove, Tony Snow and Michael Gerson and former GOP national chairmen Ken Mehlman and Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) have warned that their party faces long-term disaster by pushing Hispanic voters into the Democratic Party.

In The Wall Street Journal last month, conservative think tank president Richard Nadler wrote that his study of 145 majority-Hispanic precincts showed that “immigration policies that induce mass fear among illegal residents will induce mass anger among the legal residents who share their heritage.”

Despite all that evidence, House GOP leaders have staged vote after vote on amendments designed to restrict benefits to illegal immigrants — even where the law already restricts them — and Senate Republicans led the way, joined by nine Democrats, in filibustering the DREAM Act, which would have allowed young people brought to the U.S. by illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

If Republicans want to destroy their future prospects in increasingly Hispanic, once-Republican states like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, it’s their option. But the process could be very nasty.