Who would have guessed two years ago that as the 2008 Iowa caucuses and New
Hampshire primary hove into view, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani would be
leading an effort to turn the 21st-century GOP into a party of anti-immigration
Attacking illegal immigration never used to be a priority for either man.
Romney mostly ignored the issue when he ran for the Senate in 1994 and for
governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In a Boston Globe interview in 2005, he
noted that illegal immigrants "contribute in many cases to our economy and to
our society." As recently as last year he favored a sensible path to
legalization for most undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint
from our country," Romney told the Lowell Sun in March 2006. "With these 11
million people, let's have them registered, know who they are. . . . Those who
are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process
toward application for citizenship."
As for Giuliani, not only was he never an anti-immigrant crusader, but as mayor
of New York he had ardently defended his city's policy of sheltering illegal
immigrants. "There are times when undocumented immigrants must have a
substantial degree of protection," he told more than one audience. He denounced
"the anti-immigration forces in Washington and elsewhere," and emphasized the
"courage and ambition" it takes "to leave your native country and start a new
life in a new land." He went so far as to say, in 1994: "If you come here and
you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the
people who we want in this city."
Like Romney, Giuliani supported comprehensive immigration reform, and was
opposing the "punitive approach," as recently as 2006. "Give people a way to
earn citizenship," he urged. "Recognize the economic forces that . . . require
people to come into the United States." A sensible policy on illegals, he
argued, would "separate the ones that are here for benign or neutral purposes"
and focus instead on those who "come here to carry out terrorist acts or to
sell drugs or to commit crimes." By all means intensify security at the border,
Giuliani said, "but don't try to legislate against the inevitable forces of
social movement and the economy, because it isn't going to work."
Alas, those enlightened views are forgotten today as two of the Republican
Party's most accomplished and intelligent leaders bash each other for not
hating illegal immigrants enough.
"Mayor Giuliani Refused To Do His Part To Stem The Tide Of Illegal
Immigration," snarls a Romney press release.
"On Governor Romney's watch, the number of illegal immigrants in Massachusetts
skyrocketed," Giuliani's campaign spits back.
Romney on Giuliani: "He welcomed illegal aliens to the city. That sanctuary
state of mind is one of the reasons we have so many illegal immigrants in our
Giuliani on Romney: "He recommended millions of dollars in state aid to
numerous sanctuary cities and to companies employing illegal immigrants not
to mention the illegals working on his own lawn."
Ugh. Of course, the former governor and former mayor aren't the first
politicians to pander to anti-immigrant hostility in seeking political power.
Unlike the nativist Know-Nothings of old, Romney and Giuliani are careful to
exclude legal immigrants from their censure. But when 99 percent of everything
they now say on immigration is negative, plenty of voters are apt to miss that
The Know-Nothings today are spoken of with disdain, but their attractiveness to
voters was once a remarkable political phenomenon. One of Romney's predecessors
as governor of Massachusetts, Henry J. Gardner, was elected three times on the
American Party (the "Know-Nothing") ticket. And he had plenty of company: In
the 1854 election in Massachusetts alone, the Know-Nothings won every statewide
office, every seat in the state Senate, virtually the entire state House of
Representatives, every seat in the congressional delegation, and a slew of
It wasn't a party of single-issue yahoos, nor were they blind reactionaries.
The Know-Nothings opposed slavery, supported greater rights for women, expanded
constitutional liberties, mandated paid legal counsel for poor defendants,
increased aid to public schools and libraries, enacted numerous consumer
protections, and cracked down on corruption in public office.
But who recalls any of that today? The Know-Nothings are remembered now for one
thing only: the anti-immigrant bigotry they inflamed and exploited for
Giuliani and Romney are not single-issue yahoos either. But they are letting
their hunger for power overwhelm their better judgment and decency. Recklessly
bashing illegal immigrants may score them points with one angry segment in the
GOP base. But what are they doing to their party's reputation? What are they
doing to their own?