Monday, December 17, 2007

The New Yorker and the Nativist: Part III

Lindsay Graham: "There’s a fine line between being upset about violating the law and appearing to be upset about someone’s last name.”

Graham has it right, or almost so. The line between immigration law and racism has been blurred. Since when is it ok to lash out at children, call people names (publicly) and tell everyone the apocalypse is coming because all the Mexicans are here? The United States is ill with a virus that is spreading so quickly, we can't tell who is ill and who is not anymore. Some immigrants who have been here a while are saying nasty things about more recent immigrants (see post "The Righteous Immigrant") - the caustic atmosphere is just about everywhere. There is no vaccination that can stop the epidemic. Almost all of us have been contaminated with hatred. What is even more unfortunate is that we are not even aware this has happened. We think it's about the law, limited resources, and national cohesion - but it's really about the fear of darker skinned people and what they might do to (what we perceive as) our pristine country. If this would not be true, the undocumented Irish would be rounded up in hoards...

The Political Scene
Return of the Nativist
Behind the Republicans’ anti-immigration frenzy.
by Ryan Lizza December 17, 2007
The New Yorker


Besides McCain, who was the original Republican sponsor of the comprehensive immigration bill, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is the Republican most associated with the legislation. Graham negotiated the details of the final version of the bill, which went down to defeat, and as a consequence he has become a target of ridicule on the talk-radio right. On the afternoon of the YouTube debate, Buddy Witherspoon, a Republican National Committeeman, was finishing a two-day tour of South Carolina, announcing his campaign to run against Graham in the June Republican primary. Witherspoon’s sole issue is immigration. After watching McCain’s testy forum at Clemson, I travelled a hundred and twenty miles to see Witherspoon in Aiken, a town of about thirty thousand. I found him setting up for his speech in front of a government office building at the end of an alley that abutted a shopping thoroughfare where tourists occasionally passed in a horse-and-buggy, casting curious glances. Exactly thirteen people were there to listen to him, including a ten-year-old who had accompanied his grandmother.

Dean Allen, a plump and friendly fellow sporting an American-flag tie, told me that he runs something called Spirit of Liberty; he’s also helping Witherspoon’s campaign. “Some of these people may be coming in here to get jobs washing dishes, but some of them are coming in here to hijack airplanes,” he explained. “If you’re down there trying to look at the people coming across the border, maybe a lot of them are just motivated by economics, and they want a job washing dishes or cutting grass. But I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from the Al Qaeda operatives by looking at them, because they cut their beard off. It’s like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses on, you know? I mean, not a racist thing, but they’re all brown with black hair and they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic or Spanish, so if they don’t belong here and they don’t come here legally, I want to know who’s here.” He echoed McCain’s observation that the anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in states with new Hispanic populations. “The illegal Hispanic population, it’s definitely growing,” he said. “I can tell you just from how many you see when you walk in Wal-Mart, and you drive down the street and you see buildings now with writing in Spanish that says ‘tienda,’ which is Mexican for ‘store.’ You didn’t see that even a year or two ago.”

After speaking for forty-five minutes, Witherspoon walked across the street with me to Tako Sushi and we sat outside, where heat lamps warmed us. Witherspoon is tall and bald, and he spoke quickly, like a man full of opinions he’s been eager to vent. In his speech, he had run through many of the issues that have been festering on the right: the Law of the Sea treaty; an alleged plan to combine Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a super-state; the Patriot Act. But he was most exercised about immigration and about Lindsey Graham’s betrayal on that issue. “There’s a lot of unrest in South Carolina,” he told me gravely. “And people are concerned that the Senator no longer represents the views of mainstream South Carolinians in a lot of ways. Immigration is the No. 1 issue, no question there. We’re concerned about illegal immigrants coming in here and—well, under the Bush Administration, it’s now seven years into his term, and he hasn’t done a lot about it.” He was not impressed by Bush’s big-tent philosophy of courting Hispanics as the future of the Republican Party. “The big tent is great. But that doesn’t mean ’cause it’s a big tent you should include everything under the tent.”

When I talked to Graham a couple of days later, he did not sound alarmed by the Witherspoon challenge. With more than four million dollars in his campaign account, he can afford to be somewhat, but perhaps not entirely, relaxed. His pollster, Whit Ayres, has been monitoring the issue closely, and Graham was eager to share the results. His role in the immigration debate has indeed hurt him. “What’s happened for me is my negatives have gone up about ten points,” he told me. “My approval rating has come down about eight or nine points. That’s the consequence to me.”

But the numbers told another story, too. Graham read me one of the questions that his pollster asked about immigration. The poll tested voters’ opinion of three different proposals to deal with illegal immigrants: “arrest and deport”; “allow them to be temporary workers, as long as they have a job”; “fine them and allow them to become citizens only if they learn English and get to the back of the line.” In two separate polls, the majority supported the third option. The average for the first option was only twenty-six per cent.

“What it tells me is that the emotion of the twenty-six per cent is real, somewhat understandable, but if not contained could destroy our ability to grow the Party,” he said. “And I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you’re going to win a general election you have to do well with Hispanic voters as a Republican.” He continued, “My concern is that we’re going to have an honest but overly emotional debate about immigration, and we’ll say things for the moment, in the primary chase, that will make it very difficult for us to win in November. There’s a fine line between being upset about violating the law and appearing to be upset about someone’s last name.”

Graham, who is one of McCain’s staunchest supporters, had not yet seen a new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, which reported that the gains made among Hispanic voters during the Bush era have now been erased. Nevertheless, he had a warning for Republicans: “Those politicians that are able to craft a message tailored to the moment but understanding of the long-term consequences to the country and to the Party are the ones that are a blessing. And the ones who live for the moment and don’t think about long-term consequences, demographic changes, over time have proven to have been more of a liability than an asset.” He added, “Be careful of chasing the rabbit down a hole here.” ♦

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