Editor’s note: This is the third article in a three-part series on the post-election debate on immigration reform. The first part is Both Sides of Immigration Debate Retrench, the second is Identity Politics and the Latino Payback on Immigration.
While pro-immigration groups are hailing the Obama victory and the Latino turnout as a victory for liberal immigration reform, immigration restrictionists are reshaping their messaging for the Obama era. Although not thrilled with the prospect of an Obama presidency, the restrictionists don’t necessarily fear it. Some, including NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), already are trying to leverage Obama’s promises to protect workers and create jobs.
Given how successfully the restrictionist institutes in Washington have tweaked their anti-immigration message in the Bush era to reflect new citizen concerns about national security and the "rule of law," it would behoove immigrant advocates and other supporters of comprehensive immigration reform to pay more attention to what the leading restrictionists are now saying.
During the campaign the anti-immigration groups despaired over the prospect of either McCain or Obama. But now the two leading restrictionist policy institutes, NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, point encouragingly to Obama’s strong positions in favor of employee verification and employer enforcement.
They have also been confident that the aggressive enforcement regime instituted by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will persist into the next administration, especially given the way that many Democratic congressional representatives have supported increases in the department’s immigration-enforcement and border-control budget.
However, it’s the country’s economic downspin that gives the restrictionists the most confidence that liberal immigration reform is dead for the foreseeable future.
FAIR’s Post-Election Framing
FAIR immediately jumped into the post-election debate over immigration reform with media releases, polls, and new policy analysis about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform.
Rather than focusing on how pro-immigration and anti-immigration candidates did on Nov. 4, FAIR almost immediately developed a new framing for its anti-immigration message. According to FAIR, "The results of yesterday’s elections are a clear rejection by the voters of government of, by, and for, special interests, and policies that have brought this nation to the brink of an economic crisis."
While pro-immigration groups like the National Immigration Forum and America’s Voice were citing the heavy Latino and immigrant turnout for the Democrats as evidence that the time has come for liberal immigration reform, FAIR posited that Americans were mostly concerned about their jobs and economic stability and, as such, would not support "failed special interest-driven policies" like immigration.
FAIR asserted that "Americans are fed-up with immigration policies that have placed the interests of immigration lawbreakers, cheap labor employers, and ethnic power brokers ahead of those of struggling workers and taxpayers."
Casting aside Obama’s promise to enact comprehensive reform including legalization in his first term, FAIR’s president Dan Stein zeroed in on Obama’s commitments to create jobs and to back "change that voters can believe in." Instead of focusing on the cultural, national security, environmental, or "rule of law" arguments that FAIR has previously favored, Stein argued that FAIR’s position in favor of restricted immigration was an economic, worker-centered stance.
"To the extent that Senator Obama received a mandate," said Stein, "it is to put government back on the side of working Americans. A critical component of an economic recovery plan for struggling workers must be to set rational limits on immigration, enforce laws against employing illegal aliens, and resist calls for more guest workers."
Rather than situate FAIR as a negative force opposing comprehensive immigration reform, Stein called for Obama to "put forward a coherent immigration policy that recognizes that reforming immigration is critical to getting our economy back on track." Typical of the restrictionists that see legal and illegal immigration as a causal factor for most any problem—from climate change to the subprime crisis—FAIR now regards restrictionism as central to economic recovery.
"At a time when the economy is faltering, when nearly a million Americans have lost their jobs this year alone, when federal, state, and local governments are facing unprecedented deficits, President Obama will need to institute and enforce immigration policies that do not add to these problems."
Like the pro-immigration forces, the anti-immigration camp brandishes polls to back its statements. In making its new pitch for a conservative reform package that would restrict both legal and illegal immigration, FAIR points to exit polls and a post-election poll it commissioned to support its contention that liberal immigration reform can’t count on widespread public support.
Exit polls commissioned by FAIR show that only a third (32%) of surveyed voters voting for Obama said they supported legalization of illegal immigrants, while six in 10 of those who voted for McCain opposed "amnesty." Other polls commissioned by Democratic Party groups like NDN and pro-immigration groups show a much higher support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
FAIR contends that "by wide margins Americans believe that their interests would best be served by overall reductions in the flow of immigration, and enforcement of immigration laws in a way that sends a clear message to both illegal aliens and their employers that the interests of law-abiding, hard-working Americans is paramount."
Out of the Gate with New Poll Findings
To support this assertion, FAIR points to a post-election poll (Nov. 5-6) conducted by Zogby International of actual voters that found, according to FAIR, that a decisive majority of voters believe that an illegal alien amnesty would "further harm the interests of struggling American workers."
Obviously formulated to confirm FAIR’s own positions, some of the survey questions seemed to prompt restrictionist answers from respondents. Citing the survey results, FAIR reported that "57% of voters stated that amnesty would harm American workers and further strain public resources, while only 26% believe amnesty would aid economic recovery and ease public burdens."
While FAIR and other immigration institutes don’t dispute the widespread conclusion about Latino turnout for Democrats, they question the assessment that Latinos favor liberal immigration reform. As Stein noted in another post-election release, "Arizonans overwhelmingly rejected a deceptive ballot measure which would have made it easier for businesses to hire illegal aliens. Proposition 202 was rejected by 60% of Arizona voters, including 56% of Latino voters in the state." The proposition would have obligated the state to soften the current state law that severely penalizes employers for hiring illegal immigrants.
Immigrant-rights groups argue that the unprecedented turnout of Latino and immigrant voters—about 10 million—and their overwhelming support for Obama—67% of Latinos—demonstrated the salience of the immigration issue for a large constituency angered by the immigration crackdown. What’s more, this expanding constituency proved key to moving four swing states—Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico—into the Democratic column.
But FAIR counters that exit polling showed that the economy was the number-one voting priority for the majority (54%) of Latino voters, while only 11% cited immigration reform as their top concern.
"All voters, including Latinos, turned to the Democrats last Tuesday in the hope that they will get our economy back on track. Notwithstanding a massive spin effort on the part of the ethnic advocacy network, the electorate, including Latinos, did not vote for amnesty and more immigration. In fact, the polls show that voters believe amnesty would be an impediment to economic recovery and putting American back to work," Stein concluded.
Instead of bemoaning the victories of Democratic candidates committed to liberal immigration reform, FAIR’s Stein immediately started spinning the election results as a victory for restrictionism, even though 10 restrictionist Republicans went down to defeat. Stein said they looked "forward to working with his new administration to bring long overdue changes to an immigration policy that, along with many other policies of the past eight years, were soundly rejected by voters across the country and across the political spectrum."
Immigration Reform is About Numbers
Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, is on a roll, crowing that the Obama victory provides momentum for one of his central messages about immigration, namely that large number of legal and illegal immigrants undermine the welfare of U.S. workers.
Author of the 1996 book, Case Against Immigration , Beck asserts that high immigration flows negatively impact citizen workers and the environment. He has catapulted that argument into an increasingly high profile for NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration institute organization he founded in 1997. NumbersUSA claims 450,000 members and was the lead organization in mobilizing grassroots opposition to the comprehensive reform proposal in mid-2007.
Beck’s case against immigration has also led him to become a leading advocate of the "attrition through enforcement" policy supported by the two overwhelmingly Republican congressional caucuses closely tied to NumbersUSA—Immigration Reform Caucus (House) and Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus (Senate)—and implemented by the Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The day after the election of Obama, Beck told NumbersUSA members and activists (800,000 claimed) that " I feel mildly optimistic at this moment about the next presidency." That’s because, said Beck, Obama "must choose between two contradictory campaign promises"—to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented foreign workers and to provide jobs.
Beck calls for a "small army of committed citizens" to force the news media and politicians to see this as a contradiction. NumbersUSA isn’t waiting until January 20 to mobilize its army of anti-immigration activists to pressure Obama to stand down on his promise for liberal immigration reform and stand up to his promise to support workers. A petition to Obama organized by Beck asserts that a "legalization program would permanently remove 7 million jobs from being available for American workers."
Economic downturns traditionally ramp up anti-immigration sentiment, and NumbersUSA is already jumping on the purported immigrant-jobless connection. According to Beck, "Every illegal foreign worker given amnesty permanently ties up a U.S. job that an unemployed U.S.-born worker or longtime legal immigrant is seeking in these hard times."
Playing native-born workers off against immigrant workers is not a new restrictionist strategy. Job insecurity has always been a message to swell the ranks of anti-immigrant forces.
With the economic crisis, this argument now seems to be overtaking prominent, and often specious, arguments of the past such as immigrant crime and the cost of social services for immigrants.
In Beck’s view, "Whatever the Obama campaign may have said about immigration before the stock market crash, his priorities have clearly changed and immigration policy will have to serve his top priority of getting American workers back into jobs that offer decent wages and benefits, especially health insurance."
NumbersUSA and other restrictionists also intend to pressure the Obama administration and the new Congress to continue with an "enforcement-only" policy. And Beck believes that they are on firm ground since Obama and other Democrats have stressed their support for secure borders and employment verification.
During the electoral campaign, Beck said NumbersUSA regarded the positions of the two presidential candidates as being from "bad" to "abysmal." Now, however, the restrictionists say in Obama’s campaign promises there is much to work with as they seek to advance the enforcement-only agenda of "Attrition Through Enforcement."
Beck, for example, points to the immigration platform that appeared on Obama’s campaign website, which stated: "To remove incentives to enter the country illegally, we need to crack down on employers that hire undocumented immigrants."
Moreover, Obama’s website also supports employee verification, which if implemented, would force millions of undocumented immigrants to leave their jobs. As the campaign website boasts, Obama cosponsored a bipartisan amendment to ensure that "employers can verify that their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States."
Obama signed a Dear Colleague letter to other senators that said he "strongly support[s] creating an effective, mandatory employment verification system for all employers to verify the legal status of their workers."
The three-part restrictionist action agenda, according to NumbersUSA, should be: 1) support the authorization of the E-Verify program, 2) support the SAVE Act which provides for a phased-in verification system, and 3) continue the Bush administration’s executive order that requires federal contractors to use the E-Verify system.
The choice, says Beck, is Obama’s:
"If Obama follows his own instincts and past words of support for turning off the jobs magnet for illegal immigration, he potentially will open up millions of jobs for millions of unemployed Americans. This would be the cheapest, fastest job-creation program he has any chance of achieving. Or he can choose to favor illegal foreign workers and turn his back on unemployed Americans."
Leave the Bile Behind
Not as close to either grassroots restrictionism or Congress as his colleagues at FAIR and NumbersUSA, Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist think tank Center for Immigration Studies reacted bitterly to Obama’s election while pointing to the restrictionist victories in Arizona as cause for hope. "Even if The One’s minions gut immigration enforcement, it’s still alive at the state level," wrote Krikorian in his blog.
But unlike his counterparts at the other DC restrictionist institutes, Krikorian acknowledged that the anti-immigration forces may have a messaging problem. Noting that there is too much "bile" in the restrictionist movement, CIS’s president, author of the The New Case Against Immigration Both Legal and Illegal, observed in a post-election analysis that "too much of even the legitimate, non-bilious concern of immigration is based on the idea that today’s immigrants are somehow inferior to your grandma from Siciliy or your grampa from Lithuania."
Moving forward toward legislation restricting immigration, Krikorian recommends that restrictionists adopt a new framing of the issue. Rather than demonizing immigrants as many restrictionists do to build their movement, Krikorian advocates a more cerebral, conceptual approach to immigration policy reform:
"This is why I think there’s political utility (as well as substantive truth) to the central point of my book: Today’s immigrants are very similar to those of the past, but we have changed, our society is so profoundly different because of modernization that mass immigration of any kind is no longer appropriate. This removes the onus from the foreigners and also allows us to place illegal immigration into a larger context rather than just gripe about lawbreaking (as bad as that is)."
"A pro-immigrant policy of low immigration" is what Krikorian recommends as the new framing for restrictionists, while opposing legalization for those already here. Recognizing that many Latinos support a liberal immigration policy that supports more immigration, the CIS president observes that his framing probably won’t "attract most immigrants, or most Hispanics, or most Hispanic immigrants, but it will attract some and cause others to be less intense in their support for the other side and, perhaps most importantly, reassure native-born voters that their concerns about immigration don’t make them bad people."
As immigrant advocates gear up for another round in the immigration debate, they would do well to follow the example of their restrictionist counterparts who are framing their message not in terms of political parties, ethnicities, or status as "New Americans," but in terms of what’s good for the economy and all workers, not just immigrants. And in their call for legalization of 11 million immigrants living and working illegally in the country, supporters of liberal reform shouldn’t shy away from injecting the values of fairness and justice into the debate.