Follow voters on immigration

Gasoline prices have taken over the front pages, lead the evening news and dominate the talk shows now, but little of substance can or will be done to reduce the cost of energy this summer and possibly for years.

Gasoline prices have taken over the front pages, lead the evening news and dominate the talk shows now, but little of substance can or will be done to reduce the cost of energy this summer and possibly for years.

Even President Bush’s modest suggestions this week were rejected in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, where members refused a largely cosmetic tax increase on oil-company profits.

So what’s a president to do if he wants to accomplish something on the domestic front before the midterm elections? Well, this president seems to have heard one message from the American people, and that is immigration.

True, it ranks below Iraq, terrorism, the economy and probably healthcare, but the issue generated a tremendous amount of heat before the Easter recess. Bush has been road-testing the issue recently, a number of members of Congress still see it as an election-year diversion and the House and Senate leadership have promised to deal with the issue before Memorial Day. Republicans, in particular the more militant conservatives, like Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), should seriously consider the potential backlash from their extreme positions.

It is clear that a few weeks back home with their constituents have moderated the views of many members. It is unlikely we’ll hear the level of agitation for border walls, ankle bracelets and massive roundups we did in the heated rhetoric before Easter. As often happens inside the Beltway, politicians whipped themselves into a frenzy that didn’t match what they found when they went home to their constituents.

The broad themes that emerge from the dozens of polls done over the past few weeks show an electorate much more moderate on this issue than many members of Congress have been. Americans think this is a serious issue, but not as serious as Iraq, the war on terrorism and a general disgust with the job a self-serving Congress is doing.

Americans don’t see the immigration issue as a simple choice between “getting tough” and amnesty for all. Voters recognize that illegal immigrants are here doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Most believe there should be a reasonable path to citizenship for those already here in the country, especially those holding down jobs and generally playing by the rules. They think illegal immigrants should earn the right to be Americans by working, paying taxes, learning English and paying some sort of fine or penalty for sneaking into the country. American voters seem to believe intuitively that a guest-worker program with no hope of citizenship is at odds with the lady holding a torch near Ellis Island.

Guest-worker programs have been a spectacular failure in Europe. Millions were recruited to fill the extreme labor shortages after World War II with the expectation they would return home once the children of the war generation entered the work force. That didn’t happen. They stayed in their adopted countries in a strange limbo of residents without citizenship.

The children of those workers are now trapped, often in ghettos or slums, bitter and restive. Many experts have identified this failed policy as fuel for riots, violence and active terrorist cells in Europe. “You can live here, but you can’t be one of us” is a failed policy that will do no better than it has in Europe.

This is not to suggest Americans are not concerned about containing the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, but they favor increased border patrols, using the military to help seal the borders and penalties for employers who recruit illegals as the tools to accomplish that goal best. Walls can be scaled and are expensive and un-American. The extreme proposals of the Republican right wing are divisive and seen as unworkable by most Americans.

The divisive nature of these proposals is dangerous for Republicans. Most voters view Democrats as having a more balanced approach to immigration. The radical proposals have the combined effect of splitting the Republican Party and forcing Latino voters back into Democrat ranks.

As the first Republican president to make serious inroads into the Latino vote, Bush is in danger of losing ground if he cannot persuade his conservative base to hear the message of a majority of voters. Republican former Gov. Pete Wilson made that mistake in California a decade ago and helped build a strong Latino voting base for Democrats. Over the next 30 days, the president must avoid making that same mistake.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Clausen Strategic Advocacy.