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Illegal Immigration: The Republican Wedge Issue for 2008?

Will the Republicans make immigration the gay marriage of the 2008 electoral contests?
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The following piece is part of an ongoing series of OffTheBus reports by citizen policy experts critiquing different aspects of Campaign 08.

The first big wedge issue for the 2008 presidential campaign seems to be shaping up as illegal immigration. The GOP is just now testing its effectiveness and the Democrats are already on the defensive and wondering what to do.

Ironically, the issue revealed itself following the Oct. 16 election victory of Democratic candidate Niki Tsongas over Republican Jim Ogonowski in a strongly Democratic, working-class district in Massachusetts where she led Ogonowski by about 10 points until the final days before the election.

During the last few weeks of the campaign, Ogonowski raised the illegal immigration issue and began to close the polling spread. Tsongas won, but with only 51 percent of the vote, which was a disappointment to Ogonowski but elated Republicans when they realized that they may have a positive issue that could somewhat counter all of the negatives they carry because of the war in Iraq.

The issue apparently focuses predominantly on the access to government benefits by illegal immigrants and reflects concern about the economy in white, working-class neighborhoods in many areas of the country, areas that could be vital to a Democratic victory in 2008.

Francis Talty, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, followed the Tsongas-Ogonowski contest. In a Washington Post story, on Oct. 23, he said the issues seemed to be, "Do you want illegal immigrants to get in-state [university] tuition? Do you want them to get driver's licenses? Do you want their children to get benefits under SCHIP? It was the benefit side that has real resonance, not the deportation thing."

In the same story, Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a leader in the 2006 Democratic election victories, said "This issue has real implications for the country. It captures all the American people's anger and frustration not only with immigration, but with the economy. It's self-evident. This is a big problem."

Republicans have been watching their support among religious conservatives slip away and the illegal immigration issue could be a way to energize the "values voters" block of their base.

Prior to the Tsongas election, the illegal immigration issue focused mostly on the need for "border security." Solutions advocated by various Republican and Democratic candidates cluded rounding them up, putting them in holding facilities currently being built by Halliburton subcontractor KBR, deporting them, keeping them from crossing the border by building a 700-mile-long fence, and punishing employers who hire them. All of these solutions are burdened by the negative connotations of a police-state policy aimed at poor people just here to find work so they can feed their families.

By putting a positive twist on the issue, so that it is seen as "them" getting access to government benefits that should only go to "us," the Republicans can point to the "tax and spend liberals" in Congress who only want to take your tax money and waste it on more social-welfare programs that include people who aren't even real American citizens. This was one of the things that torpedoed the SCHIP bill, the perception that the children of illegals could have access to medical insurance benefits.

No one really knows how many illegals actually are in the U.S., estimates range from around 12 million to as high as 20 million. No one even really knows the effect of illegals on the U.S. economy. Studies done on the effect of illegals on the U.S. economy appear to merely reflect the preconceived notions of those doing the studies, showing on one hand that illegals pay taxes and have a slight positive effect on wages; while other studies show that illegals use resources far in excess of the taxes they pay and that they depress wages.

GOP candidate Fred Thompson, trailing Rudy Giuliani in the polls, and accused of being rather vague on the issues, has taken the offensive with illegal immigration. Reuters reported, on Oct. 23, that Thompson, while campaigning in Florida, announced his new plan to deal with illegal immigrants. He not only wants to increase border guards and build more jail space to house illegals, he said he also wants to cut federal funds to "sanctuary cities" and states that do not report illegals or that grant benefits to illegals.

Thompson also said, according to Reuters, that it is important to enforce immigration laws and limit the employment opportunities of illegals. "It's not only necessary for any meaningful immigration reform, but border security plays a key role in both the interdiction of illegal drugs and in defending America against terrorist threats," Thompson said.

The issue is ideal for Thompson because he can attack Giuliani and hit illegal immigration, illegal drugs and terrorism all with one issue.

However, Reuters also talked to Katie Levinson, a Giuliani spokesperson, who criticized Thompson's record as a senator in the 1990s. "Where was Fred Thompson when he had the chance to tackle illegal immigration and fix a broken system? He was voting against $1 billion to combat illegal immigration at the borders, against stricter employment verification and for giving illegal immigrants more benefits than we give legal immigrants," she said.

Democrats are having a difficult time addressing the problem of illegals and border security. They generally don't want to do anything that could be seen as an attack on Hispanics, legal or illegal, because the Democrats hope to pull a large portion of the Hispanic vote into the Democratic tent.

While every Republican candidate includes some comment on immigration or border security on his web site issues list, most Democrats seem to avoid it. Only Barack Obama gives the immigration issue more than just a token comment. He actually offers a somewhat detailed list of things that he feels must be done to address the issue.

Following the victory of Democrat Tsongas over Republican Ogonowski, the chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, John Walsh, said that the concern over illegals receiving government benefits only gave Ogonowski a bump of five points in the last days before the election and Tsongas still had a clear win of 51 to 45 percent.

Other political analysts, as well as Rep. Raum Emanuel, who hopes to increase the Democratic margin in the House, don't look at the Tsongas-Ogonowski contest with the same confidence as Walsh. There are many Democratic candidates across the country, running for the House, the Senate and even the White House, who won't have the luxury of a five-percent comfort zone in a state that is already strongly Democratic.

The issue of illegal immigrants has changed in just the last couple of years, along with changes in the concerns of many voters. It is no longer about illegals crossing the border and taking jobs that most Americans wouldn't do anyway. Americans have begun to worry about the economy and about government financial resources in the form of tax dollars being taken out of their pockets and used to pay for benefits going to people who are not even American citizens.

"And anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people," Emanuel said.

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