Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Know Nothings in the 2008 Election

Americans often tout our country's diversity and how the ancestors of most Americans came here from somewhere else seeking a better life. When I was a kid, the Smithsonian hosted an exhibit called "A Nation of Nations" which sums us up about as well as our national motto of "E Pluribus Unum" or "One Out of Many."

On the other hand, Americans don't often tout our history of nativism which has a long if undistinguished pedigree. The anti-Catholic Know Nothings rode high in the 1850s, founding the ironically named "Native American Party". Former President Millard Fillmore carried Maryland on an anti-immigrant ticket in 1856. I guess the people forgot that the Colony of Maryland had been founded as a Catholic refuge and named for a Catholic Queen.

America is currently going through yet another of its cycles of high immigration followed by nativism. Although his presidential campaign is going nowhere fast, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo has managed nonetheless to attract a few headlines with his extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric:
"Look at what has happened to Miami. It has become a Third World country. You just pick it up and take it and move it someplace. You would never know you're in the United States of America. You would certainly say you're in a Third World country," Tancredo said.
Less widely reported is that Tancredo received a standing ovation at the Family Research Council so-called "Values Voters Summit" in DC this past weekend when he tried out the same line according to someone I know who attended. The right-wing National Review bloggers seemed to miss that particular sound bite though they discuss other glorious moments in Tancredo's speech here and here. Suffice it to say that it is a good thing Mary and Joseph didn't look for shelter in Tancredo's manger.

While Tancredo will not get far in his quest to be the next Millard Fillmore, the Washington Post reports that the desperate Republicans are likely to turn to anti-immigration as a theme in the 2008 elections. They've certainly done it before. Pete Wilson won reelection as governor of California in 1994 by running against illegal immigrants. His campaign commercials showed immigrants sneaking over the border with the voiceover saying "They keep coming and coming."

Pete Wilson won one more term but alienated Latinos permanently. The share of Latinos registering as Republicans dropped to near zero and California Latinos became a loyal Democratic voting bloc. In contrast, at the same time, the Republican governor of another state with a large Latino population reached out to Latinos and dramatically increased his share of the Latino vote. His name? George W. Bush.

Of course, as President, Bush did not choose to act on immigration under his popularity was in the toilet and he couldn't get immigration reform through Congress. Even so, Bush is positively progressive on the issue compared to many of his fellow partisans. My guess is that this is one aspect of the Bush legacy that Republicans will choose not to embrace.

Immigration doesn't just roil American politics. There were riots in the capital of Switzerland (yes, really) over this question during their recent election campaign. The Swiss People's Party has gradually risen from the fourth to first largest party in the land by combining opposition to the EU with opposition to immigration. Their election propaganda in the recent campaign showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off of a Swiss flag.

Efforts to make it easier for people to naturalize have failed in Switzerland. In 2003, a major of Swiss voted against making it simpler for third-generation Swiss who resided legally in the country to gain Swiss citizenship. Over one-fifth of Swiss residents are not Swiss citizens so the high number of non-citizens remains a bit problem.

Perhaps we should be thankful that the 14th Amendment, which says that all people born in this country are citizens of the United States by right, prevents immigration from being a multi-generational nightmare here. While only a relatively slim majority of Latinos are citizens, over four-fifths of Latinos under age 18 are citizens. Latinos are also the fastest growing group of voters in the country. Republicans should consider that fact before they turn 2008 into our big immigrant bashing election.

(Cross-posted on Maryland Politics Watch)

1 comment:

jjv said...

It is not clear that the 14th Amendment makes the children of illegals citizens of this country. It certainly does not do so for Foreign diplomats whose kids are born here.

Moreover, while I am not a Tancredo fan, Americans are perfectly within their rights to determine who gets to be an American through immigration. The default position that anyone coming here, no matter what law they violated to do so, can stay and be a citizen is asserted only by those who wish to dissolve the American nation.

Disagreeing with the "open borders" crowd is not nativism, even as disagreeing with Tancredo about the desirability of high rates of legal immigration is not treason.