July 15, 2008
The immigration debate in the United States is a function of two main factors: activist constituences and astute messaging. The success of the restrictionists in mobiliizing citizen constituencies and in framing messages help explain why they have controlled the direction of the immigration debate.
It’s clear, however, that an anti-immigration stance is not a sure-fire strategy to win elections. Just ask any of Sen. John McCain’s Republican opponents. Despite his pro-immigration record in the Senate, McCain – labeled “McAmnesty” by the anti-immigration forces – easily bested the gaggle of Republicans who tried to immigrant bash their way to the White House.
But it’s just as certain that restrictionists have the upperhand in immigration policy. Although they haven’t succeeded in making an anti-immigration platform a guarantee of electoral viability, the anti-immigration lobby has set the course of immigration reform in recent years.
“Are immigration restrictionists happy? You bet,” says Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies. Pleased, yes; content, no. Tasting blood, Krikorian and other like-minded restrictionists are not basking in victory. They, along with two congressional caucuses, are moving in for the kill.
“Regaining control of immigration is a process not an event,” notes Krikorian, “Our approach cannot be to focus intensively on enforcement for a few months or a year and then declare the borders secure and return to business as usual.”
Not only are they are hard at work moving immigration policy at all levels of government to the right, they are also regularly readjusting their message and steadfastly working to ensure that the Homeland Security, Congress, and local governments do the same.
With the federal and many local governments having adopted the “enforcement-first” and “border security-first” policies, the restrictionists are now pushing a new policy agenda that they call “enforcement only” and “attrition through enforcement.” Having succeeded in framing “illegal aliens” as criminals and fugitives, restrictionists are now targeting legal immigrants in their propaganda.
Having won their battle against comprehensive immigration reform in Congress and having succeeded in having the federal government mount a national immigrant crackdown, restrictionist groups like Numbers USA, Center for Immigration Studies, and Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) are now pressing hard to have state and local governments join the immigrant hunt. Over the past several years the restrictionists have successfully framed immigration as a national security threat, and they are now reviving the cultural and social arguments against immigration, both legal and illegal.
Immigration Reform Caucus in Congress, and such policy institutes in Washington as Numbers USA, Center for Immigration Studies, and Federation for American Immigration Reform
Tapping Citizen Backlash
Anyone involved in immigration issues – whether as a policymaker, policy advocate, grassroots activist, or journalist – can testify to the strength of citizen opposition to immigration and immigrants. The comments sections of online articles on immigration fill quickly with anti-immigration rants, and policymakers report overwhelming anti-immigration sentiment received from voters in their districts.
The major restrictionist organizations have fostered and shaped this citizen backlash against immigration and immigrants, and this grassroots opposition now propels them forward to yet more aggressive legislative and legal campaigns to rollback the immigrant presence in the United States.
Pro-immigrant groups also have think tanks, policy institutes, legal centers, civil liberty groups, and lobbying organizations. Like the restrictionists, they can count on supportive foundations and journalists, and like the restrictionists they often strategize together.
Yet unlike the restrictionists, immigration proponents have no citizen constituency. Their constituency is large – 38 million strong – but most immigrants are not citizens. In fact, 12 million live in the shadows as “illegal aliens.” While many citizens are sympathetic to their plight, the immigrant constituency itself has little political power.