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Pathetic tradeoff

Campaign 2008 | Conservatives hurt their cause with harsh rhetoric against illegals

Issue: "Shattered dreams," April 5, 2008

In an election year when conservatives face all the hurdles they can imagine just to hang on to the meager position they presently hold, why keep doing things that seem only to make a bad situation worse? Especially on the issue of immigration, why keep piling up our woes?

It happened again in New Bedford, Mass., a couple of weeks ago-not in some grand episode that by itself changes the national political landscape, but in one of those little stories that, when added all together, remind you why things turn out as they do.

Financier Robert Hildreth of Boston had decided he would take up the cause of some 40 immigrant factory workers who had been arrested and sent on the first leg of a trip back to Latin America. "All I did," said Hildreth-after investing $130,000 of his own money in bail bonds and legal costs-"was to allow these people to have their day in court. Some of them have already been deported. Their day in court has happened, and I'm OK with that."

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But conservatives in the area, including radio host Ken Pittman, seemed intent on spoiling such a good notion. "I just wish," said Pittman on the air, with the grumpy churlishness that is too often attributed to conservatives, "that Hildreth had shown that same compassion for all the displaced Americans who are competing for the same funds."

But isn't free-market economics one of the main values conservatives are known for cheering? Isn't it part of the glory of America that Hildreth is free to do with his money what he wants to do?

What happened instead is that once more conservatives were publicly, widely, and emphatically identified with an unfeeling and unwelcoming spirit toward a group of immigrants who were not only hard at work but, ironically in this case, sewing vests and backpacks for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To which tidbit of information I can already hear people responding: "Aha! So they were after all taking good jobs away from American workers. I knew it!"

But that "I-knew-it" attitude on the part of too many conservatives is proving costly-on at least two fronts.

First, such a harsh spirit is proving more and more to be out of sync with the facts. Take a careful look, if you will, at Richard Nadler's January 2008 report for the Americas Majority Foundation. There, in incredible detail (amermaj.com), Nadler makes the case that the states with the greatest increase in immigrant population over the last decade-half of it almost certainly illegal-also enjoyed the most favorable statistics reflecting unemployment, individual poverty, and total crime. All the influences that are supposed to be tearing apart the wholesome fabric of society and American culture are actually enhancing it. The conservative scare talk is just plain wrong.

But things get worse. While holding fiercely to such misconceptions about the societal and cultural effects of immigration, conservatives also get things wrong with reference to the political impact. So they put all their eggs in the basket called "Deport the Immigrants!" supposing that candidates who run on such a platform will win every election in sight. And we keep doing it even while watching one candidate after another go down to ignominious defeat.

It's not just that we miss the hearts and affections of tens of thousands of folks who should be (and in many cases are) our allies on a variety of conservative issues. We also tragically set the hearts and affections of their children and grandchildren against us in important elections for years to come. And get this: Along the way, we aren't even winning the hearts and affections of present-day voters we thought our message would appeal to. That's why names like Tancredo, Hunter, and Romney are so dominant in the political landscape these days.

It would all be bad enough if we had something to show for trading away such an important principle-if we could show that by stiffing the immigrants we are at least preserving a political base for achieving some other important values. Instead, we end up with neither accomplishment. It's a pretty pathetic tradeoff.

Arrogance, especially on the subject of immigration, has no place among God's people. "Remember," He says repeatedly to all His children: "You too were once immigrants."

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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