Jewish World Review July 6, 2004 /17 Tamuz, 5764

Robert Robb

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Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote | John Kerry raised the stakes in the campaign for Latino votes during his speech to the National Council of La Raza in Phoenix last week.

Kerry said that in his first 100 days, he would submit an immigration reform bill to Congress that would give legal residency and a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants.

This was intended to contrast with the immigration reform proposal announced in January by President Bush, which would also regularize the status of illegal immigrants but not provide a pathway to citizenship. In fact, they would ultimately have to return to their country of origin, primarily Mexico.

Moreover, Kerry said he would sign two other immigration bills on which Bush has not yet taken a position, providing residency status for illegal farm workers and giving the children of illegals access to college in-state tuition.

Bush's immigration reform proposal has been sneered at by the left and dismissed as mere politics. If so, it was remarkably inept politics, since it alienates everyone who cares about the issue.

To immigration advocates, it's a "pathway to deportation," as New Jersey Congressman Robert Menendez unflatteringly characterized it at a press conference immediately following Kerry's speech.

And to immigration opponents, it's amnesty, an improper reward to those who broke America's immigration laws.

At this point, I should probably declare myself. As a general proposition, I believe that the United States should be open to those willing to make their own way - even if, as is now largely the case (particularly with illegal immigration), they are relatively poor and uneducated.

Labor is an asset and, over time, capital will seek to maximize its usefulness. And I think that generally it's a good thing that the United States and Arizona are places where relatively poor and uneducated people can make a better life for themselves and their families.

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Liberal immigration policies and a welfare state do present fiscal challenges. And the evidence is substantial that the current level of immigration has had an adverse effect on the incomes of native-born Americans who lack a high school education, and on some occupations, such as the construction trades, which have traditionally been bridges to the middle class for the native born without a college education.

But, overall, I tend to side with letting people in rather than keeping them out.

However, I recognize that this is a decidedly minority viewpoint. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that current immigration is too large and too fast, and that restrictions rather than liberalizations are in order.

And that's the strangest part of immigration politics: At present, the majority position is going unrepresented.

That's because the Latino vote is widely thought to be the wave of the future.

Certainly, Latinos are a fast-growing segment of the population. And they show much more electoral volatility than the solidly Democratic Black vote. The Republican percentage of the Latino vote tends to fluctuate from the low 20s to as high as the nearly 50 percent that some Republican governors have attracted.

One of those Republican governors was George W. Bush in Texas. And he's clearly committed to trying to duplicate that success at the national level.

Unfortunately, he's pursuing it through traditional ethnic-group politicking. He speaks Spanish a lot. I don't think there was a Latino Republican office-holder or wannabe who didn't get paraded before the 2000 Republican National Convention.

And by Republican standards, Bush didn't do badly among Latinos in 2000, getting about a third of their vote compared to Bob Dole's less than a quarter.

Instructively, however, the Republican presidential candidate who has done the best with Latinos was Ronald Reagan. Not only in the landslide re-election in 1984, but also in 1980, when the media routinely depicted him as an over-the-hill, right-wing nut.

Reagan hardly engaged in traditional ethnic-group politicking at all. Instead, Latinos were attracted to him for the same reason as other Democratic-leaning voters were: his belief in the fundamental goodness of this country, which was openly being questioned by the left at the time, and his staunch support of traditional values and institutions, such as hard work, entrepreneurship, family and faith.

I doubt that demography is quite the political destiny that Democrats hope and Republicans fear. Assimilation and upward mobility tend to change perspectives and, ultimately, allegiances.

Regardless, the best chance for Republicans is to compete for Latino voters Reagan's way: by articulating policies that have universal appeal and benefits.

As Kerry's speech to La Raza amply demonstrates, if this is a bidding war, Democrats will win.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
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