U.S. Border Control

Analysis: Why Bush blundered on immigrants

By Steve Sailer
United Press International
September 10, 2001

LOS ANGELES (UPI) -- The news just keeps getting worse for President Bush's hopes to ease immigration laws for Mexicans.

First, his own party in Congress quietly but strongly objected. Next, at a formal White House welcoming ceremony last week, visiting Mexican president Vicente Fox, Bush's supposed best friend among world leaders, shocked administration officials by suddenly dropping the conciliatory language he had been using recently. Fox insisted upon what appears to be precisely the "blanket amnesty" for Mexican illegal immigrants that Bush has repeatedly rejected in his attempt to woo recalcitrant Republicans.

Further, Fox asked for an agreement by year's end, though Bush's unofficial point man on immigration in the House, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, has signaled that he doesn't want to try to introduce a bill until 2003, saying, "I don't even know if we can get a bill in this Congress."

This left Bush alone in the middle between his own party on his right and his hoped-for diplomatic partner on his left. Finally, on Thursday the Gallup Organization released the first poll on the subject not commissioned by an interested organization. Gallup titled its findings, "Americans Clearly Oppose Amnesty for Illegal Mexican Immigrants." Poll respondents rejected making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens by a 67-percent to 28 percent margin. Only 6 percent favored the "general amnesty" that Fox apparently called for. Another 22 percent backed easier citizenship for those who have "worked/paid taxes."

These stunning setbacks were obviously not anticipated when Bush's intention to pursue some sort of amnesty for Mexican illegal aliens was leaked in July. Then, most pundits and editorialists hailed it as a political masterstroke. What didn't the Bush operatives understand about the politics of immigration? And why didn't they grasp what an embarrassment they were letting themselves in for?

It's easy to see why Congressional Republicans lack enthusiasm. The short-term benefits to the Republican Party appear trivial at best, while the long-term costs could be substantial. As United Press International revealed in July, unpublished Census Bureau data shows that the size of the Mexican-American vote is much smaller than is widely imagined: only 3 percent in 2000. Moreover, 72 percent of Mexican-American voters live in California and Texas, two states whose electoral votes probably won't be up for grabs in 2004. In the rest of the country, Mexican-Americans cast 1.1 percent of the votes. The overall Hispanic vote comprised 5.4 percent of the national total. While growing, it probably won't exceed 6 percent by much in 2004. Not surprisingly, Congressional Democrats quickly met the president's bid and raised it by offering to extend amnesty to all immigrant groups, not just Mexicans.

Democrats have been more thrilled by amnesty than have Republicans because, in the long run, putting Mexican illegal aliens on the road to becoming American voters appears likely to help Democrats more. Over the past 40 years, no GOP presidential candidate has won more than 40 percent of the Mexican-American vote.

Because the Democratic Party tends to be closer to Mexican American concerns on most issues than the Republican Party, there seems little likelihood that Republican me-too gestures on immigration could cause a major partisan realignment. In fact, by pointing out that most Congressional Republicans are much less enthusiastic about amnesty than Democrats, the Bush initiative may end up driving even more Hispanics into the welcoming arms of the Democratic Party.

The long-term costs to Republicans of adding Hispanics to the voter rolls could be severe. Say the GOP increases its long-term share of the Hispanic vote from the 35 percent Bush won in 2000, according to the Voter News Service exit poll, to the 40 percent

that the Bush strategists hope for in 2004. Then, for each additional 5 million Hispanic voters, the Democrats pick up 3 million and the Republicans 2 million, for a net gain of 1 million votes for the Democrats.

If the GOP stays at 35 percent, however, Democrats would pick up an additional 1.5 million-vote margin.

Of course, the GOP share could well decline. There is no law that says Republicans must become more popular among minorities. For example, Bush did worse among both blacks and Asians than did the otherwise hapless Bob Dole. If the GOP's long-term Hispanic fraction fell to 25 percent, then the Democrats would garner a net margin of 2.5 million votes for every 5 million new Hispanic voters. This strategy sounds like the business plan of a dotcom that intended to sell products retail for less than they cost it wholesale, but expected to make up the losses on volume.

An article in the upcoming issue of "American Outlook" by Peter Brimelow, author of "Alien Nation," and Edward S. Rubenstein of the Hudson Institute, provides more detailed estimates of the long-term impact of Hispanic immigration on the electoral chances of the Republican Party.

Nor should it have been surprising that the public would be hostile to Bush's trial balloon. In 10 Gallup polls going back to 1965, no more than 14 percent of the public has ever asked for increased immigration. Even among Hispanics, only 33 percent told Gallup last June that they favored more immigration.

Fox's motives for challenging Bush's go-slow strategy during what was expected to be a mutual admiration society meeting remain mysterious. One possibility is that he felt obliged to flex his Mexican nationalist muscles to quell worries at home that he was secretly intending to allow Americans, perhaps the Texas oil men close to Bush and Cheney, to buy Pemex, Mexico's nationalized oil monopoly, in return for Bush loosening immigration laws. The "deal" Bush was publicly offering on immigration seemed so one sidedly generous to Mexico that skeptical Mexicans could be forgiven for assuming that the world's only superpower must have demanded some surreptitious quid pro quo.

Although the Mexican oil monopoly is inefficient, dilapidated and corrupt, it remains a potent symbol of national pride. President Lazaro Cardenas' 1938 expropriation of American-owned oil assets in Mexico is a beloved episode in Mexican history -- one of the few times Mexico has triumphed over "The Colossus of the North."

Due to political pressure from Mexican nationalists, Fox has had to declare Pemex "untouchable." So why did Karl Rove and the rest of the Bush braintrust misread the political situation? Why did the White House fail to anticipate Congressional Republicans' concerns that amnesty would undermine the GOP? The Bush team appears to have been the victims of residing in an echo chamber with a mainstream media corps that -- for reasons of innumeracy, fashion, self-interest, self-image and fear -- failed to challenge the Bush advisers' sloppy thinking about immigration. This line of thinking traces back to Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, who has been widely quoted claiming that to win in 2004, Bush must increase his share of the Hispanic vote from 35 to 40 percent. To be fair to Dowd, he said that Bush would also need to increase his share of the black vote from 9 percent to 15 percent, which would do far more for Bush's chances in 2004, but that has largely been forgotten in the excitement over Hispanic voters that has swept the media.

Dowd's assertion makes sense only if you assume that in 2004 all else will remain exactly the same as in 2000. Because Bush won last November by the smallest conceivable margin, then an additional 0.3 percentage points could indeed make a difference.

Yet, the same kind of statement could be made for countless other groups of voters besides Hispanics. For example, Bush won a similar 36 percent of the vote among the 46 percent of the electorate who told the Voter News Service exit pollsters that the environment is more important than economic growth. If Bush were to do 5 percentage points better in 2004 among this environmentally oriented bloc, he would gain a full 2.3 percentage points more than in 2000. That would benefit Bush almost seven times more than boosting his share of the Hispanic vote by 5 points.

Yet, the Bush administration has chosen to pursue Hispanics while alienating the environmentally conscious. Interestingly, by putting immigration back on the table, Bush has made it harder for the media to continue to ignore immigration critics. This renewal of true public arguments over immigration should help politicians avoid this kind of blunder in the future.


Last updated