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Republicans Ignore Past Anti-Immigrant Debacles: Albert R. Hunt

May 24 (Bloomberg) -- The Arizona Republican Party, following hard-fought primaries, plans a victory dinner in Phoenix on Aug. 27. There is a perfect speaker: former California Governor Pete Wilson.

Arizona Republicans believe they’re riding a big anti-illegal immigration wave to success in November. Wilson can regale them with how he pursued a similar strategy in 1994, winning re-election with 55 percent of the vote after embracing Proposition 187 to cut off state-funded education and health programs for children of illegal immigrants.

Wilson might also remind his political neighbors that since then the only other member of his party to win a major statewide election is the pro-immigration Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; the Democrats have swept every presidential contest in the Golden State since then; Republicans had captured California in six of the previous seven presidential contests and five of the seven most recent gubernatorial races.

Thanks to Wilson, the Republican brand is anathema to much of the fast-growing Hispanic vote in California.

“There are a lot of similarities between what’s happening in Arizona and what happened in California in 1994,” says Sergio Bendixen, a political pollster and consultant specializing in the Hispanic vote. “That made California a deep blue state (as in Democratic) and Republicans are making the same mistake now trying to benefit on anti-immigration.”

Arizona Law

There is short-term allure. Polls in Arizona and nationally show support for a measure signed into law by the state’s governor last month that allows police to detain anyone who can’t produce proof of citizenship when stopped for infractions as minor as running a red light, or deemed suspicious.

The catalysts for the Arizona law were the huge number of undocumented workers flowing into that state in recent years, and some highly publicized crimes, including the murder of a rancher near the border. Arizona Republicans claim they are taking action because the federal government has abdicated its responsibilities.

Politicians in other states are embracing the anti-immigrant push; the leading Republican gubernatorial candidate in Colorado wants an Arizona-type law in his state, and it’s a dominant issue in the California Republican gubernatorial primaries. In Florida, second-generation immigrant Marco Rubio is straining to embrace a pro-immigration posture while still supporting the Arizona law. Rubio’s discomfort reflects awareness that Hispanics have a much different view of this measure.

Hispanic Opposition

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey earlier this month showed that while non-Latinos back the Arizona law by almost 2-to-1, 70 percent of Hispanic voters oppose it and 8-in-10 say they believe it’s likely to lead to discrimination against legal immigrants.

There is widespread resentment among Latinos that they will be singled out as a result of this law, despite the insistence of Arizona officials that racial profiling is impermissible. Both experience and the testimony of law-enforcement officials suggests otherwise.

Previous and earlier surveys by Bendixen show that almost 2-in-3 Latino voters have either a family member or friend who’s an undocumented worker.

He says Hispanics resent the suggestion that immigrants are more prone to criminality, an allegation that is contradicted by the vast majority of academic studies and statistics. In Arizona, while immigration has soared in recent years, the crime rate has actually dropped.

Party-Line Vote

Hispanics know these anti-immigration measures have a partisan coloration. The Arizona law passed on a virtual party-line vote, with no Democrats in support, and only one Republican state senator in opposition. It was signed by a Republican governor.

Resentment is likely to endure among Latinos, while the attention of supporters moves to other issues. Hispanics are the fastest-growing U.S. voting bloc, comprising 7.4 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election, double their proportion 20 years earlier. Similar growth is expected over the next few decades.

If this growing vote continues to go 2-to-1 or more Democratic, as it did in the last presidential race, Republicans face a huge long-term problem.

Long-Term Risk

Even in the short-term, support may erode. Few experts think the Arizona law will actually reduce illegal immigration or curb crime. A number of Arizona law-enforcement officials have testified, one even bringing legal action, saying it will worsen their efforts in both areas. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, when she was governor of Arizona, vetoed a similar measure, arguing it would have “diverted criminal law-enforcement resources” and “undermined the vital trust” between police officers and the communities they serve.

Cities and organizations already are vowing to boycott conventions or tourism in Arizona. Even the hometown basketball team, the Phoenix Suns, wore their Spanish-language “Los Suns” jerseys on Cinco de Mayo during the National Basketball Association playoffs to protest the law. Major League Baseball, where more than one-quarter of the players are Latino, is under pressure to move the All-Star game from Phoenix next year.

And, more than a few legal experts question whether the law passes constitutional muster.

To be sure, the federal government needs to devote a lot more resources to the Arizona border. The number of personnel patrolling the Mexican border has more than doubled over the last decade to 20,000, although the most porous spots are in Arizona. It would be better to step up enforcement in conjunction with a liberalized immigration law, though it can’t wait for that.

Social Issues

Republicans, however, delude themselves in thinking this pitched anti-immigration rhetoric and actions can be overcome by appealing to the cultural conservatism of many Hispanics on issues such as abortion and gay and lesbian rights. “I’ve never met a Hispanic who came to this country because they wanted to marry a gay or get an abortion,” Bendixen says.

Even some conservative Republicans, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, warn of the political peril of the Arizona law.

In 1994, when many Republicans in California and elsewhere were celebrating Wilson’s anti-immigration triumph, there were similar warnings from a few prescient politicians, such as the late Jack Kemp, who said this was the “modern equivalent of the know-nothing party of the last century.” Kemp was ignored; his party paid a price.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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