Bashing Immigrants Comes With a Price

Bashing Immigrants Comes With a Price

By Ruben Navarrette - December 29, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Rep. Lamar Smith's pet cause is immigration enforcement. Now, as the chairman-elect of the House Judiciary Committee attempts to convince fellow Republicans to join his posse, he has also taken an interest in Latino voting patterns.

Too bad he has such a limited understanding of both.

The San Antonio congressman can't match candlepower with Republicans such as Karl Rove, Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich. They are also thinking about Latino voting, and they worry that the GOP is -- through the immigration debate -- alienating an otherwise conservative audience with incendiary rhetoric and bumper sticker slogans.

According to the polling firm Latino Decisions, 71 percent of the votes cast by Latinos in the midterm elections went to Democratic candidates. And with recent census data showing that Hispanics drive population growth in Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Florida and other states, the Republican Party could be capsized by a demographic tidal wave.

Yet, instead of making peace, Smith is making up tall tales. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, he made the rosy claim that GOP-Hispanic relations were "very bright" in spite of warnings that "a pro-rule-of-law stand would undercut Hispanic support for Republicans."

Smith wants to reassure Republicans in Congress that they can act with impunity if they bash immigrants -- of all kinds. Not simply an opponent of illegal immigration, he also supports limiting legal immigration. And he wants to change the 14th Amendment and deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Hard-liners like Smith get tangled in contradictions. To avoid charges of being anti-foreigner, they insist they're only concerned with "illegal immigration" and have no problem with legal immigrants -- whom they also want to keep out. And they brag about being "pro-rule-of-law" right up to the point where they try to change laws they don't agree with.

There is good news. Unlike demagogues such as Tom Tancredo -- the former Colorado congressman who managed to enrage Cuban-Americans, a loyal GOP constituency, by calling Miami a "third-world country" -- Smith hasn't been foolish enough to say outright racist things. Nor does he compare illegal immigrants to insects as did Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who insists that authorities should be able to apprehend more illegal immigrants because the government can "capture illegal grasshoppers from Brazil." We heard something similar from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said that he wants to build a concrete border fence that no one or nothing could get across, not even "a cockroach."

The problem with Smith is that he doesn't approach the immigration issue with honesty, nuance or sophistication. As when he says that the Obama administration is making it "easier for illegal immigrants to keep jobs that rightly belong to U.S. citizens and legal immigrant workers."

This sounds like something you'd hear from a Democrat pandering to union workers in a Rust Belt state. Does a supposedly pro-business Republican really need to be reminded that U.S. jobs don't "rightly belong" to anyone but rather are earned by those who are willing to do them?

Smith doesn't grasp that the immigration issue is about economics and the need to replenish the U.S. labor supply because young people are raised to think of themselves as entitled to avoid stoop labor. He thinks the whole problem can be solved by enforcement alone, even though the professionals who do that work daily -- whether it's Border Patrol agents or the brass at Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- disagree and insist that there isn't a wall high enough to deter mothers and fathers who are desperate to feed their children.

Smith is tougher on some offenders than he is on others. He sounds like Dirty Harry when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants who can't vote and don't contribute to political campaigns, but he wimps out and becomes Barney Fife when he has the chance to stiffen penalties on employers who do. The co-author of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which focused on enforcement, somehow forgot to include a new round of employer sanctions in the mix.

He didn't forget. I interviewed Smith a couple of years after the law was passed, and I asked him why he hadn't come down harder on employers. He candidly acknowledged that it would have been a tough sell to fellow Republicans.

Now Lamar Smith is on another sales trip, peddling the snake oil that Republicans can do their worst and not pay a price with Latino voters.

Buyer beware. Tidal wave approaching.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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