Right-Wing Politics and the Anti-Immigration Cause

By Diamond, Sara | Social Justice, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Right-Wing Politics and the Anti-Immigration Cause


Diamond, Sara, Social Justice


In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson revived his floundering reelection campaign by hitching his sails to the cause against illegal immigration. Both Wilson and the cause were big winners that year. California's Proposition 1987, designed to deny many social services to undocumented immigrants, was approved by a large majority of the state's voters. Turnout for the initiative was credited with boosting the electoral victories of Republican candidates for Congress and the state legislature.

Predictably, the initiative was challenged in court. One year after voters approved Proposition 187, a federal judge struck down most of its provisions, ruling that undocumented immigrants could not be denied public schooling, nor could state health and welfare agencies withhold services by requiring applicants to prove legal residency status (Holding, 1995). The swift passage and immediate legal challenge to Proposition 187 were symptomatic of both the political utility and liability of the anti-immigrant issue. In the short term, Pete Wilson and like-minded politicians could make hay with strident rhetoric against "illegal" immigrants. Over the long term, however, the immigration issue was a challenge even for those on the Right. Legally, Proposition 187 was unlikely to be upheld and implemented in the form that had made the initiative so popular at the polls. Politically, despite Wilson's smooth victory, immigration policy was the subject of diverse viewpoints among activists and thinkers on the Right.

These differences were symptomatic of some persistent quandaries for the Right in the 1990s. Among the unresolved questions were concerns about the proper role of the state: in regulating the flow of cheap labor across borders, in acting to redress economic inequality versus letting people fend for themselves, and in preserving cultural homogeneity and the supremacy of white, native-born citizens. For the Christian Right's large voting bloc in the 1990s, the anti-immigration cause was a relatively low priority compared to the "family values" issues. For its own reasons, the Christian Right sought to integrate its ranks across racial lines and, therefore, a wholesale attack on immigrants of color did not fit the bill.

The anti-immigrant theme was expedient in electoral campaigns such as that of Governor Pete Wilson, and there was understandably a great deal of media attention accorded to the ways in which politicians sought to use the issue. Yet beneath the surface, and largely away from the media spotlight, the Right was not unified around the goal of making a priority of the anti-immigration issue. Empower America, a leading Republican think tank headed by Jack Kemp and William Bennett, opposed Proposition 187 and urged Republicans to embrace, not reject, ethnic diversity in party ranks. The Christian Coalition, the single largest and most influential right-wing movement organization in the country, was agnostic on the anti-immigration cause and instead waged a high-profile effort to recruit conservative religious African Americans and Latinos. Contrary to common perception, not everyone on the Right promoted the anti-immigration cause.

It was in the realm of high-profile electoral politics that the immigration issue received the most attention. Both in 1992 and in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan made opposition to illegal immigration central among his campaign themes. In his 1992 Republican convention speech, Buchanan named "illegal" immigration as one of the targets in his declaration of "a religious war that is going on for the soul of America." That year he called for the construction of a "Buchanan fence," a trench along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration (Dart, 1992; Dowd, 1992). In 1992 and 1996, Buchanan won about one-quarter to one-third of the GOP primary vote, with calls for a moratorium on immigration topping his agenda. Yet even Buchanan, the national politician most publicly identified with the anti-immigration cause, was careful to moderate his rhetoric between his first and second campaigns, focusing in the latter race more on the economic factors that lead Mexican workers to come across the border.

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