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Forgotten Issues

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 history.

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 question-and-answer time.

"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 polls.

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 English-only laws.

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 taxpayers."

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 better wages.

"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 join unions."

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, without qualification.

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

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