This summer, the immigration debate in the United States has heated up as conservatives of all tendencies-social conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, free-market conservatives, national security conservatives, and Republican Party stalwarts-seek to frame the debate in their own terms. In part, it’s a battle over competing right-wing ideologies. It’s also a high-stakes race to determine which approach to the immigration crisis will win the most votes for Republicans.
A group of leading conservatives recently sent an open letter to President George W. Bush stating that “enforcement first” measures should be central to any immigration policy reform. The signatories-including right-wing luminaries like William Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly, and William Bennett-called for the country’s political leaders to remember: “We are in the middle of a global war on terror.”
This conservative manifesto comes on the heels of another statement on immigration policy by pro-immigration conservatives published in the Wall Street Journal on July 10. “The Conservative Statement for Immigration Reform,” signed by 33 prominent conservatives, calls for the creation of new legal channels for immigrants “drawn to the jobs created by our economy.” That same day, a Journal editorial titled “Conservatives and Immigration” reiterated the paper’s “long-standing position favoring open immigration.”
Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, immigration restrictionists were marginalized in Congress and had little pull in the Republican Party. Immigration received little or no attention from the right’s battery of think tanks and policy institutes, except for single-issue institutes such as the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. But the breakdown this spring of bipartisan attempts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill demonstrated the newfound political strength of immigration restrictionists.
Although a comprehensive bill that included legalization and guest-worker provisions passed in the Senate, it was blocked in the House, where restrictionists led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) have gained control of the post-9/11 immigration agenda. Pro-immigration sentiment runs deep in the Senate, whose members have traditionally reflected the more favorable views of large corporations and party leadership when it comes to immigration. But recently, the increasing clout of the immigration restrictionists was quickly apparent; even the proponents of legalization dressed up their bills in the language of national security and law and order.
Perceiving that the anti-immigration stance is gaining popularity, Republican senators are beginning to adopt the “enforcement first” language of the anti-immigration lobby. Majority leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) describes immigration as a “dangerous national security threat,” observing that the “scariest part” of illegal immigration is that “we have absolutely no idea what they’ll do tomorrow on U.S. soil.” Seeking his party’s presidential nomination, Frist has founded his own organization, Secure America’s Borders, to tap the anti-immigrant surge.
A number of hardline think tanks and policy institutes have also jumped into the immigration fray, creating new ideological divides throughout the center-right. A number of influential conservative think tanks-including the Hudson Institute, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, and American Enterprise Institute-that rarely address immigration issues now have scholars articulating sharply different positions on immigration policy. On one side stand the likes of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute, and Steve Forbes of Forbes Inc., all of whom advocate the traditional Republican position that immigration is good for the economy and that the government should open more legal channels for would-be immigrants. However, even these pro-immigration conservatives now lace their arguments with a strong dose of language about the need for border security and assimilation.
But it’s the anti-immigration camp that has seized control of the ideological and political debate. Out front in defining immigration as a national security threat is Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the neoconservative Center for Security Policy. After 9/11, immigration restrictionists quickly tweaked their anti-immigration message as a pro-security position. Going a step further, Gaffney, who signed the July 19 conservative statement backing an enforcement-first immigration policy, says stopping immigration flows and deporting unauthorized immigrants are among the “10 steps America must take to prevail in the war for the Free World.”
“Free World” bombast is nothing new, but its application to the immigration debate is a recent twist. In his new book War Footing, Gaffney and his coauthors tap predictable Cold War language about Washington’s role in saving the so-called free world from the so-called Islamofascists in order to bolster the case of the immigration restrictionists. Gaffney argues that immigration policy should be regarded as part of a world war to protect U.S. national security and freedoms. The southern border is a warfront threatened, according to Gaffney, by the rise of the center-left in Latin America. This conflict, he says, the United States is losing.
Reminiscent of the Cold Warriors’ warnings about the rising “red tide” in Latin America, Gaffney argues that the United States should be on guard against the left gaining ground there. Arguing for an immigration policy that is on a “war footing,” Gaffney warned in a Washington Times op-ed that the “implications of such an outcome could be far-reaching for the integrity of our southern frontier, illegal immigration, drug-trafficking, terrorism, trade, and the radical ‘reconquista’ movement (which is intent on ‘taking back’ at least parts of the United States for Mexico).”
Of pressing concern to Gaffney is the popularity of Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is contesting the recent presidential election in Mexico. “Like others of his persuasion, Lopez Obrador’s bid appears to have benefited from financing and help on the ground from his soulmates in Caracas and Havana, who clearly relish the prospect of extending their axis to the border of the United States,” writes Gaffney.
Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, along with 30 other organizations-including Roy Beck’s NumbersUSA, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and Paul Weyrich’s Coalitions of America-is spearheading a “Secure America” campaign that asks politicians to sign a pledge against liberal immigration policies that supposedly “entail real national security, as well as socioeconomic, risks.” The pledge prescribes that “illegal aliens currently in the United States may be afforded a one-time opportunity to leave the United States without penalty and seek permission to reenter legally if they qualify under existing law. Those who do not take advantage of this opportunity will be removed and permanently barred from returning.”
The July 19 “enforcement-first” letter to Bush from prominent conservatives illustrates the increasingly broad rea
ch of the anti-immigration movement and the large extent to which it integrates immigration policy with the “global war on terror.” It also highlights the degree to which neoconservatives, who have traditionally been solidly pro-immigration, are joining the restrictionist coalition. Neoconservatives signing the letter included William Bennett, Peter Collier, David Frum, David Horowitz, Michael Ledeen, and Daniel Pipes.
Concerns over national security after 9/11 have given restrictionists a new vehicle to move their cause to the center of the political debate. Now many conservative thinkers and leaders are jumping on the anti-immigration bandwagon in an attempt to forge a new right-wing coalition that will win political power by bringing together grassroots constituencies, military hardliners, neoconservatives, and social conservatives.
Tom Barry is policy director of the International Relations Center and a Right Web contributing writer. A version of this article was published by Inter Press Service.