In trying to widen their appeal and camouflage their nativist instincts, anti-immigration conservatives have had a makeover. After many years of trying to divide Americans by race and ethnicity, now they're attempting to divide them according to wealth and class.
Someone has been talking to an image consultant.
I got a peek at the new strategy recently as part of an immigration symposium hosted by the University of Wyoming. I sat on a panel with Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, both of whom work in Washington and thus can be forgiven for having an uninformed understanding of the issue.
These organizations put the lie to the popular claim that Americans are only concerned with the undocumented since both groups also want to keep out legal immigrants. Both outfits were founded with help from John Tanton, a nativist and eugenicist who has long worried about demographic changes and been obsessed over the reproductive habits of Latinos. In a memo during the 1980s, Tanton crudely warned that "those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down."
The symposium was kicked off by my friend and former professor Alan Simpson, a favorite son of the Cowboy State. While representing Wyoming in the Senate, Simpson co-authored the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants. The 83-year-old Republican deserves credit for navigating the immigration debate without resorting to nativism or demagoguery.
It can be done. One can support ending illegal immigration, enhancing border security and deporting lawbreakers without vilifying immigrants as defective, dangerous or diseased.
Regrettably, some Republicans have been stuck on stupid. Former Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., warned a largely white audience near San Diego that one day their children would have no choice but to take Spanish in school. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, suggested electrified fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out immigrants because "we do that with livestock all the time." Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., called Miami "a Third World country" because so many residents speak Spanish.
The restrictionists of today think they're being so clever by changing their tune and reformatting their arguments. Yet don't be fooled by the package. They're still selling ugliness, bigotry and division.
Here's the new part. Now the restrictionists seem intent on advancing their cause by starting a class war. I've been hearing the drumbeat for the last year or so as immigration opponents attempt to piggyback on the public's concerns about falling wages, income inequality and whether the rich pay their "fair share" of taxes.
During the symposium, both Stein and Vaughan channeled the anti-capitalist populism we hear from people such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Stein claimed that unchecked immigration hurts the working class, that legal immigrants were "suckers" for playing by the rules, and that the social contract required that American jobs go to American workers. Vaughan made a pitch for fairness and told the story of U.S. hotel workers who had been fired after many years on the job and replaced with immigrants who were willing to work for lower wages.
Steam came out of my ears. I countered that jobs in the U.S. are not reserved for Americans but rather are open to anyone who comes here legally and competes for them. I said that no one promised the American workers that they were entitled to a life free of competition, and suggested that those threatened by undocumented workers with limited skills need to go back to school and get more skills. Finally, I said, people who claim to care about American workers do these folks no favors by encouraging them to see themselves as victims instead of urging them to be better-trained so they're irreplaceable.
Mark my words. Down the line, this populist strategy will get the restrictionists into real trouble with some of their supporters and set up an interesting conflict with pro-business allies in the Republican Party. Ironically, a strategy intended to prevent these anti-immigrant folks from being marginalized could wind up producing exactly this result.
So why do the makeover? Look at the calendar. It's 2014, and Americans have twice elected a multicultural president. It is unfashionable for restrictionists to continue to preach that immigrants pollute the national bloodstream.
Still, cosmetic changes are just that. Whereas once the anti-immigration lobby pandered to the right, now they pander to the left. Either way, they just swapped one brand of pollution for another.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.