Immigration is one of those issues in the ’08 campaign that is all smoke and no flame. Conservatives are voicing some pretty ugly xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants but they haven’t voted for the xenophobic and nativist candidates. All the same, the smoke suffocates rational discourse about immigration. Were the issue truly incendiary, Duncan Hunter or Tom Tancredo, perhaps even Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee. The remaining smoke, however, also screens out the practical advantages of having every driver get a license and insurance not to mention also concealing discussion about the militarization and privatization of immigration control.
It is too bad that presidential candidates aren’t discussing the positive role immigrant businesses, entrepreneurs, engineers, and others could and do play in slowing economic recession; or the continuing racism and discrimination in society that expands well beyond “illegal aliens” but lately has focused on them; or the constitutional issues (due process; privacy; free speech) that affect everyone regardless of immigration status.
The smoke is piped in by conservative radio and cable talk hosts (Rush, O’Reilly; Beck; Coulter; Dobbs…) and right wing anti-immigrant policy centers (FAIR CIS), which energize conservative mobs with red meat claims of alien hordes and terrorists.
But no flame. Folks aren’t voting their anti-immigrant rhetoric. For all the ranting against immigrants according to primary state exit polls, Republican voters have failed to cast votes (decisively, at least) based on their anti-immigrant opinions, settling instead on the least anti-immigrant Republican in the field–John McCain.
Briefly here’s why:
1) The immigration issue has no first-order constituency. When it comes right to it, anti-immigrant xenophobes hate a lot of other things as much or even more than they dislike immigrants. Over the years, opinion pools have shown that americans may not be in favor of immigration (in the abstract) but they like the real individual immigrant neighbor down the street or in the office. Thus, small towns around bigger cities where necomers often first reside, may rail against immigration but few would actually take up arms (figuratively), or call ICE to report their colleague, friend, neighbor, babysitter, landscaper or painter (real human beings with families). Anti-immigrant rhetoric thus becomes less salient in the voting booth because few voters have been harmed by actual immigrants (the system perhaps, immigrants, no). The same cannot be said about Iraq, lob layoffs, sub-prime mortgages, lack of health insurance, poorly funded public schools and so forth which create real tangible harm for most people. These are the issues that generate acutal votes when the voting booth curtain closes.
2) Dominent interests inside and outside government have financial claim on perpetuating a perceived problem with “illegal immigration.” Immigration agencies within the DHS have been hollowed out almost as much as have other DHS agencies during the Bush years. As Naomi Klein argues in Shock Doctrine, this is no isolated occurrence. It is part of a much larger globalization movement towards free market neo-liberalism; The larger point here is that the demonization of immigrants helps efforts to privatize and militarize immigration control, which in turn benefits a wide assortment of security management firms which have donated a great deal of money to Bush brother and current Repub. campaigns, and which get incredibly lucrative DHS contracts in return.
Republican contenders this year stand to gain ideologically and some financially by puffing smoke at immigrants and generating the growth of the immigrant industrial complex at the borders and thoughout the country. Within this system, voting hardly matters.