Commentary: Immigration foes could get boost from elections

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

If the Republican Party wins by a landslide in Tuesday's mid-term elections, as most polls suggest, we are likely to see growing support in Congress for Arizona-style anti-immigration laws that many Hispanics fear would lead to growing discrimination against them.

If you listen to immigration rights advocates, it will get ugly for both legal and illegal U.S. residents of Hispanic origin, because some of the measures proposed by key Republican candidates would encourage local police forces across the country to stop anybody looking Hispanic, or speaking Spanish, and demand their immigration papers.

Most polls suggest that the Republican Party will retake the House of Representatives, and -- if it does extremely well -- may even take the Senate. That would bolster anti-immigration forces in Congress because many of the new Republican legislators would be tea party-backed immigration restrictionists.

If the Republicans retake the House, as seems likely, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees all immigration issues. This is a guy who wants to end birthright citizenship to children of undocumented workers, even if that takes changing the Constitution, whose 14th Amendment states that all persons born in the United States ``are citizens'' of this country.

That would be really dumb: We would create an even larger underclass of millions of undocumented youths deprived of education and health services. Organized crime cartels would be delighted: they would have a huge reservoir of marginalized, frustrated youths, from which to recruit.

Another anti-immigration zealot, Rep. Steve King of Iowa would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. This is a guy who the Anti Defamation League has described as somebody who ``has characterized immigrants -- both legal and undocumented -- as criminals and disease-carriers.''

On the Senate side, a Republican takeover would mean that Sen. Jeff Sessions, (R-Ala.), a rabid supporter of draconian anti-immigration measures, would become head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And there would be several newly elected Senators that support Arizona-style anti-immigration laws, such as Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ken Buck of Colorado, and Sharron Angle in Nevada.

``If the Republicans take the House and the Senate, we will have some of the ugliest anti-immigration legislation in U.S. history,'' says Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice, the Washington D.C. group that supports comprehensive immigration reform. ``Latinos will be more likely to be stopped by local police and asked for papers.''

Polls show a growing anxiety among Hispanics. A new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that 64 percent of Hispanics say discrimination is a major problem for them, up from 54 percent in 2007. Nearly 80 percent of Hispanics are against the Arizona law, which -- until a judge partly suspended it -- forced local police officers to demand immigration papers from people they suspect are in the country illegally.

Republicans say the Democratic Party is resorting to fear mongering to get out the heavily pro-Democratic Hispanic vote. Polls suggest that many Hispanics are frustrated by the economic crisis and the Obama administration's failure to deliver on its promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition to using scare tactics, Democrats have been an obstacle to fixing the immigration mess, Republicans say. Democratic-supported immigration proposals have been politically unrealistic, and were designed as ``a political tactic to make Republicans look bad,'' former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican activist, told me this week.

My opinion: If Republicans win the House, but not the Senate, there will be enough Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate to stop some of the House's wildest anti-immigration proposals. There may even be a chance that both Houses could agree on a comprehensive immigration reform that would call for stronger border enforcement measures and an earned path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers.

But if Republicans win both Houses, we could see some extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric -- and bills -- coming out of the new Congress. It won't be nice, nor will it help solve the problem.

P.S.: Since every time I write a column referring to ``anti-immigration'' politicians I get a barrage of angry e-mails claiming that they are only against ``illegal immigration,'' please go to this column's comments section at www.miamiherald.com to read why I don't buy that deceiving argument.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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