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Arizona Law Also Happens To Be Good Politics

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Critics of Arizona's tough new immigration law, which makes illegal immigration a state crime, have called supporters of the bill "racist," "mean-spirited" and "un-American." Here's the newsflash: The measure is also good politics, not only in Arizona, but nationally.

Usually after a measure like this has passed, the news media respond with stories about how the measure will hurt the GOP among Latino voters. This time, not so much.

A New York Times/CBS poll found that 51 percent of Americans see the Arizona law as "about right" and 9 percent said it does not go far enough; 36 percent said it went too far. Note the poll didn't ask a phony amorphous question, like whether voters support "immigration reform" -- the usual fodder that provides the rationale for said stories.

President Obama called the Arizona law "misguided" and said he favors "common-sense comprehensive immigration reform." It's all lip service. Obama reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to push immigration reform -- with a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens -- during his first year in office because, well, it's political poison.

At a Cinco de Mayo event last week, Obama had a new promise -- "to begin work this year" on an immigration bill. In Spanish, that translates into: Adios, amigos.

Of course, not all Latino voters want to relax immigration laws, but to the extent that they do, they have guaranteed that the Democratic Party will take their votes for granted.

Meanwhile, why should Republicans stick their necks out for a demographic that abandoned John McCain in the 2008 presidential election? He risked his political ambitions by pushing for a federal bill with a pathway to citizenship in 2007 and then, according to an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll, McCain won a lousy 31 percent of the Latino vote -- down from George W. Bush's 44 percent in the 2004 presidential contest.

Obama helped kill that bill, and he won 67 percent of the demographic. When it's in their interests, Democrats ditch their pro-illegal immigration corner. In 2003, the Democratic California Legislature passed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Voters revolted and recalled Gov. Gray Davis, who signed the measure. In a craven act of cowardice, the Legislature quickly voted to rescind the bill it had passed.

In 2009, the Obama administration deported 5 percent more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration deported in 2008. As part of his immigration reform proposal, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, is pushing for a national ID card for all American workers -- the very type of documentation that critics of the Arizona law have said will turn Arizona into the "Your papers, please" state.

Hector Barajas, a former California Republican Party spokesman, said of Democrats, "They'll attend an immigration march and march with you, but on the back end, they'll say they want more agents to deport you. It's become a racket."

Back to Arizona. The Arizona legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer amended the law so that local and state authorities can only question individuals on their immigration status after they've been stopped for a non-immigration offense. This change was designed to address critics' very real concern -- also expressed in this column -- that the law would lead to racial profiling.

It's not what's in the bill, Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book and a former GOP consultant, told me; it's the tone of the debate: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it; it's the shrillness of it." And: California Democratic Sens. "Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein talk about securing the borders, but we (Republicans) get shrill."

Hoffenblum prefers the take of Republican pols from Latino-rich states -- like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio -- who rejected the Arizona law.

I agree with Hoffenblum. It is important for Republicans to show empathy for the plight of people who come to this country looking for work and a better way of life. But GOP pols also have to listen to the voters.

GOP gubernatorial hopeful Steve Poizner and the Senate GOP candidates -- Tom Campbell, Chuck DeVore and Carly Fiorina -- have supported the Arizona law. Hoffenblum sees this as risky, but I think it can't hurt them in November.

In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to deny health and welfare benefits and public education to illegal immigrants, by a whopping 59 percent of the vote. Then there's the driver's license bill fiasco. And by the way, a 2006 Los Angeles Times poll found that 38 percent of the state's Latino voters opposed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

Most of those voters, I think, simply believe that everyone should play by the same rules -- and they don't want the government to reward people who flout the law.

As GOP Senate candidate Campbell told The Chronicle editorial board last month, the Arizona law essentially upholds existing law; its provisions "in a nonpolitical environment would be noncontroversial."

Barajas doesn't buy the racist-baiting. "I think, in reality, what's happening in Arizona and across the country," he said, "I think people are sick and tired of feeling like they're being overrun and nothing's happening."

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