Monday, April 10, 2006

Is ‘Immigration’ the GOP’s ‘Gay Marriage’?



By Steve Charing

The thing about election wedge issues is that they don’t always have to originate from opponents. They can be self-inflicted, as is the case with the smoldering issue of immigration.

‘Gay marriage’ was a wedge issue imposed on the Democrats during the 2004 presidential campaign. The Karl Rove-designed Republican game plan was to drive a wedge among the Democratic voters, primarily splitting African-American and Catholic Democrats from other socially progressive voters in the party by diverting the main issues of the day to the fear of ‘gay marriage.’ The scare tactic was used in states that had constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the ballot and was fostered in churches to help arouse anti-gay sentiment. It was most evident and crucial in the battleground state of Ohio.

The incendiary anti-gay rhetoric spewed from these pulpits led to increased higher voter turnout by religious conservatives. This strategy worked sufficiently, many believe, to help George W. Bush carry Ohio and ultimately the election. And, of course, America, if not the world, is paying the price.

The newest wedge issue is immigration reform. This time, it wasn’t one party driving a wedge into the opposition’s faithful. The Republicans are doing it to themselves and are deeply divided on the best way to handle the immigration “problem” with a significant number parting ways with the President himself.

For business owners, many of whom identify with the GOP, undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) provide a ready pool of cheap labor that allows businesses to increase profit margins. These immigrants frequently work on jobs that Americans have no desire to perform—especially at low wages. They include low-skill agricultural jobs, custodial services, child-care, hotel and restaurant services, landscaping and other necessary but financially unrewarding jobs. Supporters argue they are essential for economic growth and keeping inflation in check.

Social conservatives (read: bigots who prefer America to be white, Christian, immigrant-free, English-speaking, and heterosexual), want to deport the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants already here in the name of security. They complain the undocumented workers are changing the identity of America, taking jobs away from Americans, and holding down wages. These conservatives are overwhelmingly Republican.

The House of Representatives passed a harsh bill that would not only sanction detainment and deportation of illegals and authorize the building of a wall along the Mexican-U/S. border but would also penalize anybody, including medical providers, who had offered assistance or services to these new “criminals.”

President Bush assumed a middle-of-the-road position for once and supports the enforcement of border security as well as to institute a guest worker program for those immigrants who are already here in order to pave the way for ultimate citizenship. The Democrats, for their part, are more closely aligned to the President’s plan than to the House’s severe version.

Following a debate in the Judiciary Committee, the Senate then took up the highly controversial question and attempted to pass a bipartisan compromise agreement that virtually mirrors the President’s position. However, it collapsed and failed under the weight of procedural and other amendments, which had been originally disallowed based on the earlier agreement.

Both sides pointed fingers at each other for the failure to enact immigration reform prior to recess with Bush, who is rapidly losing credibility among America’s citizens, blaming the Democrats. Many political observers believe that the matter won’t be taken up again before the mid-term congressional elections in November.

Regardless of which version eventually passes and is signed into law, it will likely cause hardships for gay immigrants. According to an article appearing in the Washington Blade, “many immigrants who are wading through the lengthy documentation process, including those … who overstayed a visa or asylum seekers who lack proper identification documents, are detained in county jails and immigration detention centers.”

Immigrant rights advocates reported widespread abuses and humiliation at these facilities that are directed towards gay immigrants, especially those with HIV, or transgendered individuals. Increased problems will arise if more detainees are thrown into the mix, which would happen under the proposed bills. Unfortunately, a solution is not on the horizon, and only 16 countries offer immigration to same-sex couples—the U.S. is not among them.

From a political perspective this will be yet another hot-button issue with which Republicans must grapple. Amidst steadily declining poll numbers that are causing normally cocky Republicans to be extremely nervous, many are already splitting up over the war in Iraq, the Administration’s failure to exercise fiscal restraint, the Dubai ports deal, the CIA leak, the DeLay ethics probes and the Abramhoff scandals. Now along comes immigration reform to further exacerbate the divide—not just between Congress and the White House, but within the GOP per se.

Millions of illegal immigrants poured through the streets throughout America to protest expulsion. These are stirring images and invoke strong emotions from those who want to show compassion to a group that has been productive in the workforce and those on the opposite side of the chasm who would rather send them all home.

The Republicans have touted the recent inroads they have made with the Hispanic community. But this issue will likely scar the GOP, not only because Latinos will see the Republican hard liners as anti-Latino, but will also incur the wrath from moderates and independents who are wondering where the compassion went from ‘compassionate conservative.’

The opposition to strict reforms is oddly diverse, as strange bedfellows have been formed when Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and evangelical Christians were aligned in forgiving current illegal immigrants. This forgiveness is the wedge itself: the A-word—Amnesty.

‘Gay marriage’ was a successful tactic to divide Democratic voters in selected states. But immigration—a wedge issue that the GOP must cope with—is broader and deeper. A recent AP-Ipsos poll shows that Americans are as much concerned about the immigration dilemma as the economy.

The growing concern over illegal immigration and the fate of the 11 million men, women and children already here will not wane as a result of Congress’ trepidation to address reforms until after the election. The Republican-led Congress, although split over this issue, cannot duck the controversy because the public demands a solution. And with such polarization within the GOP itself, politically this is their ‘gay marriage’ and deservedly so.

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