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Immigration Fearmongering And The GOP

Immigration fearmongering is a message likely to play well with the initial populations of Republican voters looking to blame someone for stagnant wages.


In his speech announcing his run for president four years ago, Rick Santorum didn’t even mention immigration as an issue. Yesterday, he announced his run for president with a particularly pointed attack on immigrants, both legal and illegal. As Byron York notes:

“In the late 70s, like many of you, we saw the economic devastation here in southwestern Pennsylvania and across this country, particularly in the area of manufacturing, as a result of the excesses and indifference of big labor, big government, and yes, big business,” Santorum said. “We lost 100,000 jobs in what seemed to be overnight. That has to, and did, leave a mark on all of us.” Part of the problem, Santorum said, has been the arrival of millions of unskilled immigrants — legal and illegal — in the United States. “American workers deserve a shot at [good] jobs,” Santorum said. “Over the last 20 years, we have brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers’ wages and family incomes have flatlined.”

Santorum’s attack on all immigration levels comes at a time when fewer immigrants are entering the U.S. illegally, and those here illegally – who make up roughly 5 percent of the American workforce – are increasingly older and more established.

“The nation’s population of illegal immigrants, which more than tripled, to 12.2 million, between 1990 and 2007, has dropped by about 1 million, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center. A key — but largely overlooked — sign of these ebbing flows is the changing makeup of the undocumented population. Until recent years, illegal immigrants tended to be young men streaming across the Southern border in pursuit of work. But demographic data show that the typical illegal immigrant now is much more likely someone who is 35 or older and has lived in the United States for a decade or more.”

I have written repeatedly on the toxicity of this debate in the context of the Republican Party, which leads to all sorts of grandstanding and calls to send armed troops to stop the influx of the dreaded fereners. But Santorum’s message takes this to a new level, targeting not the lawbreaker but all immigrants, even the ones who stood in line legally and were not subject to Barack Obama’s sweeping executive amnesty. It is also a message likely to play well with the initial populations of Republican voters looking to blame someone for stagnant wages. The true story about wage stagnation – that wage increases have been hoovered up by regulatory requirements, mandates, and the rising costs of health care and higher education – is less appealing than the simple opportunity to blame the guy who doesn’t look like you.

(Santorum’s predictions about the culture war, by the way, have been pretty close to accurate. He’s right about everything except for trade, immigration, globalization, earmarks, puppy farms, the Iraq War, NCLB, Bob Gates, and sweater vests. But when it comes to slippery slopes, he is the expert.)

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Combine the fiery Culture War 4.0 experience with the immigration rhetoric, the trade skepticism, and the anti-globalist flavor of current Republican populists. Which candidate from the past two decades really matches up best with their priorities and temperament? If you said Pat Buchanan 1996, you might be right.