By Hanna Rosin, in The Washington Post,
Thursday 26 October 2000; Page A26
Pick one fact about America that will define "the shape of the
future," to borrow a favorite campaign slogan, and it might be
this: During the past decade, more immigrants came to the United
States and settled in more states than at any time in American
Yet, when the two main presidential candidates, Vice President Gore
and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, talk about the future, the impact of
this demographic upheaval rarely comes up.
Not in Iowa, where the Hispanic population has tripled in the past
decade. Barely even in California where, during the last election, the
subject could have swallowed up much of a candidate's
"It's disappeared as an issue," said Michael Fix, an
immigration expert at the Urban Institute. "There just isn't much
to be gained from talking about it any more."
During this campaign, immigration seems to have faded away with other
"fear" issues, such as crime and welfare. Prolonged prosperity
has made voters less anxious about the influx of immigrants and
businesses more eager to court them.
Once the anonymous threat, immigrants--Latinos, Asians and Arabs--have
become coveted voting blocs. Candidates compete for them as never
before, most visibly for Latinos, using Spanish ads, snatches of
learned espanol, even mariachi bands.
"The line used to be: If your job isn't secure, think
immigration. If your highway system is creaking, think
immigration," said Demetrios Papademetriou, an immigration
specialist at the Brookings Institute. "But it's harder to make
those connections now."
Immigration now ranks 12th in a list of voters' concerns, down from
second or third in some states four years ago, according to Gallup
Yet, this relative indifference comes at a time when immigration has
reached its peak, with 10 million legal non-citizens now in the United
States, along with an estimated 6 million more undocumented
immigrants. And this time, immigrants are settling in states that
haven't seen many new faces in almost a century--places such as Idaho,
Nebraska, Arkansas, Rhode Island and Vermont.
For the immigrants and their advocates, this new influx opens a host
of urgent questions: how to integrate newcomers into schools and
neighborhoods; how to restructure the Immigration and Naturalization
Service; how to decide who deserves citizenship priority and who
deserves amnesty; what to do about welfare for immigrants and
And while each campaign has a ready list of responses to these
questions, they never come up unless the specialists ask. In the rest
of America, the questions have lost their urgency.
"Journalists from the Spanish-language press always get frustrated
and ask me, 'Why didn't Mr. Lehrer ask them a question about it in the
debates?' " said Dagoberto Vega, Gore's liaison to the Latino
community, referring to the three presidential debates. "But four
years ago, we had an aggressive anti-immigration movement to
battle. Now, that doesn't exist anymore."
Now, Gore keeps it light: "Yo [te] quiero mucho" ("I love
you very much"), he says to Latino groups, attempting a few words
of his textbook Spanish. His latest Spanish language ads--"Con
Gore Si Puedo" ("With Gore I Can")--don't mention
immigration, sticking instead to a checklist of middle-class issues:
health care, insurance, education. In recognition of the changed
landscape, the ads are running in a new set of cities that includes
Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Tampa.
Bush takes the same approach, but for him it represents a radical
break from his party's recent past. "He's a different kind of
Republican," said Sonia Colin, Bush's liaison to the Latino
community, who notes that he captured half the Hispanic vote in his
most recent election victory in Texas.
With Colin's help, Bush's campaign runs an almost full-service
parallel Spanish-language operation, with translated speeches,
position papers and a weekly news summary called "Que Hay De Nuevo
Con Bush" ("What's New With Bush"). There's even a list of
"Dichos," Bush's favorite inspirational sayings, including:
"Si se puede. Juntos si se puede," which Bush's campaign
translates as "Where there is a will, there is a way," and
"Tenemos mucho en commun" ("We have much in common").
"Vamos a ganar"--"We're going to win"--Bush tells
Latino audiences, in his more conversational but still far from fluent
Spanish. When someone in the audience asks him about Proposition 187,
the 1994 ballot initiative in California that was pushed by
then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and became an anti-immigration rallying
point nationwide, Bush apologizes for his party's anti-immigrant past.
"Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River," Bush said
in an address to a Hispanic group in June. "New Americans are not
to be feared as strangers; they are to be welcomed as neighbors."
Just four years ago, Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole
promoted a national version of Proposition 187, which denied social
services and public education to illegal immigrants. The 1996 GOP
platform hit all the panic buttons: condemning "non-citizens
taking advantage of expensive welfare programs," warning about the
"threat of illegal immigration" and "the burden on
This year, the caustic rhetoric is excised, replaced by a hazy
feel-good outreach that doesn't address many salient issues but
drastically alters the tone. The Republican platform worries about the
"tragic exploitation of smuggled immigrants, the untold suffering
at the hand of law breakers." It repeatedly calls the United
States "a nation of immigrants."
Experts attribute the turnaround to the "Wilson effect." After
the California governor's term, Democrats swept statewide elections
and Hispanic activists started to mobilize voters. By the start of
this campaign, a Republican focus group had declared Hispanics the
Soccer Moms of the 2000 election cycle.
"There's a new glow around immigrants. Anything Hispanic or Latino
is suddenly desirable," said Papademetriou.
Some experts predict that Hispanics will make up as much as 7 percent
of the vote in November. They probably won't make a difference in
larger states such as New York and California, which are already
solidly Democratic. But they could tilt the balance in crucial
undecided states such as Florida, Illinois, New Mexico and Arizona.
It's not only Republicans who have changed their message. The populist
streak among Democrats has always viewed immigrants with suspicion,
mostly in deference to unions. For years, the AFL-CIO saw them as
unfair competitors who depressed wages and stole union jobs.
But in the past few years, the union leadership has reversed its
position out of necessity. Union membership has been steadily dropping
since the 1950s, and immigrants are now potential recruits. The
unions' most dramatic successes lately have come from rallying
immigrant workers, including janitors and hotel workers, to strike for
"It's an evolution in thinking about immigration," said
Teamsters leader James P. Hoffa. "We have to recognize that people
who come to this country are being exploited and they have a right to
Despite these underlying shifts, immigration policies remain a
footnote in the day-to-day life of the campaign, part of a laundry
list of issues perfunctorily placed on World Wide Web pages, far below
health care and Social Security.
Under the headline "Welcoming New Americans," Bush proposes
dividing the INS into two agencies--one for border enforcement, the
other for social services--and expanding the number of certain kinds
of temporary visas.
Gore mentions a few more specifics; he, too, wants to reform the INS
and make it more "customer friendly." He supports limited
amnesty or permanent residency for certain Central Americans, as well
as strengthening bilingual education and opposing English-only laws,
Still, neither major candidate has offered a vision of what the sheer
number of newcomers means for the nation. That has been left to Green
Party nominee Ralph Nader, who takes the old union approach of being
wary of international agreements such as NAFTA, and to Reform Party
nominee Patrick J. Buchanan, who has stuck to a message of immigrants
moving in and taking over.
To grapple with the changes in a new way, a candidate would have to
address systemic reform, rethinking the balance between temporary and
permanent immigrants, building in a flexible mechanism so that the
total number of immigrants shifts with the changing economy.
"This would be the perfect opportunity to sort through this
unfinished business," said Fix of the Urban Institute. "But
immigration policy never happens that way."
copyright 2000 The Washington Post