Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2005 / 21 Shevat, 5765
John H. Fund
Rush for the Border: Limbaugh issues a warning to President Bush.
On Friday Rush Limbaugh, a staunch Bush supporter, took two separate opportunities to warn the president that he faced conservative opposition on some key issues that could hurt his chances of passing the rest of his second-term agenda. First was federal spending, which "is surging out of control," according to the Heritage Foundation's new "Mandate for Leadership." The other was immigration, which, Mr. Limbaugh told his listeners, "could break up the Republican-conservative coalition" à la Ross Perot. "We cannot maintain our sovereignty without securing and protecting our borders in an era where terrorists around the world seek entry to this country," he said.
Later that day, I spoke with Mr. Limbaugh backstage before he discussed immigration at a private meeting of 400 leading conservatives here. He told me his comments had been prompted in part by a wire story he had read that morning quoting Mexico's Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez as saying his country might turn to international courts to block an Arizona law, passed by voters in November and taking effect this week, that bars illegal aliens from welfare benefits and requires proof of citizenship and a photo ID to vote. Mr. Derbez said the measure could lead to "discrimination based on [an] ethnic profile," and expressed sadness that exit polls found two-fifths of Arizona voters of Mexican descent had backed the measure (which passed with 56% statewide).
Rush has 20 million listeners a week, so if he decides to attack President Bush's plan to regularize immigration flows through a guest-worker program, he could help kill the idea. The president told reporters last week that he plans to make a guest worker plan a "priority," so last Friday he was peppered with questions about it at a private retreat for GOP congressmen at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. "Family values do not end at the Rio Grande River," Mr. Bush told the lawmakers, while assuring them his plan was not a backdoor amnesty program. He promised them more details in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.
He will have to engage critics in his own party more fully especially since many Democrats will likely vote against his plan just to spite him. Many Republicans are steaming about what they see as White House obtuseness on immigration. Last month, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, held up passage of the bill revamping the nation's intelligence services until he got a promise that his colleagues would fast-track a bill that would make it harder for a foreigner to claim political asylum in the United States, impose strict national standards for driver licenses and strengthen border enforcement this year.
Now Mr. Sensenbrenner is furious over a USA Today story that quoted outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as saying that a part of the intelligence reform bill that did pass doubling the size of the Border Patrol was "fool's gold" that wouldn't be included in the president's budget. "It's nice to say you're going to have 10,000 more Border Patrol agents in five years, but what other part of Homeland Security do you want to take money from?" Mr. Ridge asked.
Soon the five GOP House conferees who negotiated the intelligence bill sent a letter to President Bush demanding that he fully fund the Border Patrol provisions. Speaker Dennis Hastert's office told Human Events that he too favored inclusion of the funds in the president's budget.
One of the five signers of the letter to President Bush was Rep. David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee. He is undergoing a swift political course correction on immigration. Last year, two radio talk show hosts in Los Angeles named John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou spent weeks urging listeners to defeat Mr. Dreier, who they claimed was only paying "lip service" to efforts to halt illegal immigration.
Mr. Dreier spent the last two weeks of the campaign promising a renewed focus on immigration, even running ads featuring his friend Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling him "tough as nails" on immigration. Mr. Dreier won, but his 54% showing against a woefully underfinanced Democrat was the lowest of his career. Only weeks after the election, Mr. Dreier announced he would introduce legislation to require creation of a photo-embedded Social Security card, which employers would be required to check with a national database to determine the immigration status of a job applicant.
Mr. Kobylt says talk radio has tasted blood on the immigration issue and he expects other hosts around the country to now pick up on the issue. "Republicans are in bed with businesses who like low labor costs, and Democrats have this socialist bent," he says. "But the taxpayers in this country cannot be responsible for a corrupt, bankrupt country like Mexico. We should start throwing employers in jail, a few fat rich white guys in prison."
Approaches like that, or Pat Buchanan's idea of a reverse Berlin Wall, are neither desirable nor politically possible to implement (barring another major terrorist attack that is the work of illegal aliens). But the pressure to "do something" on immigration is mounting. While no incumbent is likely to lose his seat on the issue, three pro-guest-worker incumbents from Arizona and Utah faced primary challenges last year. As a result, many congressmen don't even want to hear about Mr. Bush's plan.
A clear-eyed analysis would tell them the political clout of anti-immigration activists is limited. The best showing by any of the anti-immigrant primary challengers was by state Rep. Randy Graf in Arizona, who won 43% against Rep. Jim Kolbe, a gay Republican who has always had difficulties with social conservatives. And more than 44% of Arizonans voted against Proposition 200, the initiative denying public services to illegal aliens, even though the state's border with Mexico has become the crossing point of choice for smugglers.
The illegal alien problem is a serious one in Arizona, one that my brother in Tucson observed during a 30-year career in law enforcement. Erin Anderson, whose family settled in Cochise County on the Arizona-Mexico border in the 1880s, says the tide of illegal immigration has led to increased crime and made the property of many ranchers effectively worthless. Over 230,000 illegals were arrested last year in Cochise County alone (population 122,000), a fifth of the whole country's total. Even so, Proposition 200, a relatively mild anti-immigration measure, won only 58% in Cochise County, a showing that was two points below President Bush's.
Even though the political impact of anti-immigration sentiment can be exaggerated, Mr. Bush would be wise to take steps to ensure that immigration doesn't become what crime and abortion became for the Democrats: wedge issues that drove many voters to the other party. He will not come close to passing a guest-worker program until he proves his bona fides in areas of legitimate concern on immigration.
He should start with recognizing that border security is now inextricably tied up in the public's mind with homeland security. Mr. Bush signed off on increases in the Border Patrol's budget. He owes it to Congress to keep his end of the bargain, override Mr. Ridge, and make clear in his State of the Union address the money will be appropriated.
Mr. Bush could then propose limits on election fraud, which was an indisputably popular part of Proposition 200 in Arizona. Federal immigration officials have falsely told election officials in Maryland and other states who want to weed illegal aliens from their voter rolls that it is against privacy laws for them to share such information. Mr. Bush could stop such stonewalling.
The 1993 federal motor-voter law imposed onerous restrictions on the ability of states to purge voters who are ineligible or noncitizens. It should be amended to make purge procedures easier. Federal funds for election reform could also be made contingent on states requiring that voters show proper identification if they vote in person or sending copies of such identification when submitting an absentee ballot.
Mr. Bush also needs to crack down on scofflaw officials who are thumbing their nose at federal immigration policy, including some in his own party. In September 2003, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York signed an executive order forbidding New York policemen to share information on immigration offenses with the Immigration Service, except if the illegal immigrant breaks some other law or is suspected of terrorist activity.
Immigration is certainly more complex than many border-control advocates would have you believe. But supporters of rational reform that would regularize the flow of immigrant labor should recognize that it must be accompanied by measures to address the legitimate concerns of Americans who worry the federal government has completely lost control of the borders. Many voters don't trust any plan coming out of Washington, whether it's by Mr. Bush or anyone else. It's that concern that is driving Rush Limbaugh and other supporters of the president to send up political warning flares.
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