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Immigration: South and West

By Ryan Sager

Immigration is causing a split in the Republican Party. But it's not between business snobs and working slobs. It's between the South and the West.

While there may be state and local races this year where it makes sense for GOP candidates to take a hard line on immigration, President Bush and Karl Rove have taken the opposite approach at the national level for a reason: cold, hard electoral calculus.

In short, there are a number of states Republicans could lose in 2008 if the party becomes associated with a hard line on immigration. It's unlikely there's even one they could gain through such a strategy.

It's worth taking a look at exactly how pro- and anti-immigrant sentiment breaks down in America on a regional basis. One might assume that the most hostility to immigrants would come from border states, where the economic and cultural impact is the greatest. Such an assumption would be dead wrong.

Concern about immigration is certainly quite intense in border states. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released at the end of March found (unsurprisingly) that people in places with a lot of immigrants were more likely to see immigration as a major problem for their communities.

But at the same time, those people were less likely to see immigrants as a burden on their communities or a threat to American values or culture. And, revealingly enough, the converse held as well: People with the least exposure to immigrants were the most likely to see them as a rampaging horde, stealing jobs and making native-born Americans have to press '1' for English (dos para Español).

Indeed, this bears out quite well in state polls. One finds that the Southwest and Texas are quite favorably disposed toward immigrants, while the better part of the South is bursting with hostility.

Back in December of 2005, Survey USA tracked views on immigration in all 50 states. In West Virginia, 60 percent of respondents agreed that "immigrants take jobs away from Americans." The picture was the same throughout most of the South: In Alabama, 56 percent agreed, Arkansas 53 percent, Mississippi 53 percent, South Carolina 53 percent.

Meanwhile, only 33 percent in New Mexico agreed that immigrants take away American jobs. In Arizona it was 42 percent, Colorado 44 percent, Nevada 44 percent and California 30 percent.

What's more, politicians in these states seem to know the score. The Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, chaired by nativist firebrand Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has 91 members. Of those, 18 members are from the West, 51 members -- more than double -- are from the South (including 11 from Texas).

Another measure: Americans for Better Immigration, a pro-crackdown group, gives out grades to each state's congressional delegation. Nobody gets an A, but Bs and B-minuses go to Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. New Mexico gets a D-plus. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah get Cs.

The point: The South is the region that wants a crackdown, but they're solidly in the Republican column no matter what; the West is far more ambivalent, and contains a number of swing states.

There is, of course, the argument -- put forward by terribly, terribly cynical pundits -- that the GOP could pull off some neat political jujitsu on immigration, playing off the mi-casa-es-su-casa president against the build-a-wall conservatives in Congress. It's not exactly Bill Clinton's "triangulation"; maybe call it "squaring the circle."

Under this theory, Bush keeps up the party's pro-immigrant appearances on the national stage, while Republican congressional candidates use the issue as necessary to get reelected -- kind of a good-border-patrol-agent / bad-border-patrol-agent game.

One problem with this, however, is that there are at least a handful of key House races that could be adversely affected. In National Journal's ranking of the top 10 hottest House races, a full three of them are seats in the West that could switch from Republican to Democrat. In none of these does an immigration crackdown look like a winning piece of politics:

* In New Mexico's 1st congressional district, Republican Heather Wilson is in a tough reelection campaign in a Democratic-leaning district that is 43 percent Hispanic. She's already had to vote against a GOP immigration crackdown bill.

* In Arizona's 8th congressional district there is an open seat, due to the surprise retirement of incumbent Jim Kolbe. The likely Republican nominee is former state Rep. Randy Graf, who is running as a conservative immigration hawk. However, Graf is seen as too conservative to win the general election.

* In Colorado's 7th congressional district there is also an open seat, because incumbent Republican Bob Beauprez is running for governor. The Republican candidate, Rick O'Donnell, would be taking a harder line on immigration than his predecessor. Kerry won the district by 3 points in 2004; the district's population is 20% Hispanic.

The GOP is, of course, free to play cute with the immigration issue. And the recent politically suicidal illegal-immigrant rallies may even give the Republicans cover for a little while. But the Republican Party is already in danger of catering too much to the South and not enough to the West on a number of issues, such as the size of government, gay rights and personal privacy. Immigration stands ready to help push a number of swing states -- enough to, say, throw a presidential election -- into the Blue column.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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