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November’s results gave lots of reasons to be hopeful, but for human rights supporters, election-day euphoria may quickly give way to the cold reality of an uncertain future for real immigration reform under a new administration.

The widely reported failure of nativism as a wedge issue, combined with high profile defeats of a few nativist candidates, leaves the initial impression that nativism is waning. But a closer look reveals a much more complex picture. We’re back where we were after the 2006 election, with nativists – those openly expressing antipathy towards immigration – still forming a sizable bloc of the opposition and feeling pretty good about the future.

Nowhere did pro-immigrant supporters have more to celebrate than in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where the rise of a small-town mayor who pledged to turn his city into “the toughest place on illegal immigrants in America” came to a crashing halt.

Barletta's Border Patrol

Barletta’s Border Patrol

In 2006, Mayor Lou Barletta convinced the city council of Hazelton to approve a law to deny housing to undocumented immigrants and deny business permits to companies that employ them. With the help of nativist groups in Washington, Barletta quickly became the standard-bearer for a national charge to get local governments to adopt similar laws.Barletta Marching in Parade

When Barletta announced his desire to take a shot at Pennsylvania’s 11th US congressional district seat, his campaign was supposed to be one of the GOP’s [Grand Old Party – the Republicans] best chances for picking up a House seat. National nativist groups quickly poured cash into Barletta’s campaign. Tom Tancredo’s Team America Political Action Committee (PAC) contributed $4,500 (£3,000) and the anti-immigrant US Immigration Reform PAC (USIRP) donated an additional $4,000 for the rematch against Paul Kanjorski, the 12-term Democrat from the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Economic crisis, unemployment and two wars dominated public attention in the district, but Barletta kept trying to pivot to immigration. He even campaigned with Joey Vento, the owner of Philadelphia’s famed Geno’s Steaks, who made headlines after posting a sign demanding that customers who frequent his neon-drenched cheese steak stand speak English. As the race entered the home stretch, Barletta held a small lead in the polls.

In the end, Barletta lost 48% against 52%. He failed at the ballot box, but succeeded in pulling his opponent rightwards. Back on Capitol Hill, Kanjorski spurned the Democratic leadership by aiding a Republican-pushed harsh immigration enforcement bill, and on the campaign trail he adopted much harsher language towards immigrants.

Barletta wasn’t the only loser. Thankfully, this time nativism as a wedge tactic flopped. The pro-immigrant group America’s Voice reports that of the 21 competitive races where Republican candidates spotlighted their Democratic opponent’s immigration positions, in 19 races (including Barletta’s) the pro-immigration reform candidate won.

Among the other significant defeated challengers, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis lost in the Illinois 14th district. Oberweis is an anti-immigrant stalwart. He sits on the board of the influential anti-immigrant NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation and received campaign contributions from nativist PACs. A few anti-immigrant incumbents were also defeated, most notably Colorado congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave and Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

Despite those high profile losses, the nativist bloc in Congress, the House Immigration Reform Caucus (HIRC), finished the 2008 election almost exactly where it was at the end of the 2006 election – a major potential obstruction.

Going into this year’s election, the HIRC swelled to 114 members: 106 Republicans and eight Democrats. Fourteen members, including HIRC founder Tancredo, did not seek re-election. Despite the failure of nativism as a wedge, only ten HIRC members lost their seats. Ninety-one HIRC members will be returning to Congress, just one shy of the 92 who survived the 2006 election.

With a 90% electoral success rate, 73 of the 90 co-sponsors of the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2007 will be returning (nine didn’t run again, seven lost). The Bill would gut a core clause of the 14th Amendment, a cornerstone of American civil rights.

Over in the Senate, the recently formed corollary to the HIRC, the US Senate Border Security Caucus, remained small but largely intact. Eleven SBSC members went into the election. At least nine will be returning to the Senate: four winning re-election and five not up this time. The only loss was Elizabeth Dole. Saxby Chambliss did not get enough votes in Georgia to win outright and will have to compete in a runoff election in December.

The SBSC will have to contend with five newly elected senators supportive of immigration reform: Kay Hagan (North California), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Mark Udall (Colorado), Tom Udall (New Mexico), and Mark Warner (Virginia).

With Democratic successes this year, the likelihood of the HIRC and SBSC passing anti-immigrant legislation is lower, but the bloc has the potential to stall or cripple good legislation.

In courting influence, nativist groups had varying return from the $180,124 total they threw at the election. Of the congressional races to which the nativist US Immigration Reform PAC contributed, six won (five were incumbents), while four challenger candidates lost. Their congressional contributions were down this year, with nearly a third of contributions going to nativist candidates in the Republican presidential primaries. Team America PAC split, with seven wins, seven losses and one still too close to call (five incumbents, six challengers, four open seats). They didn’t actually give any money, but candidates supported by the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC didn’t fare well, with six losses, two wins, and one still too close to call (five of the nine were incumbents).

The two largest factions of the nativist vigilante Minutemen gave up entirely on congressional races and set their political sights on Barack Obama. The Declaration Alliance Minuteman Civil Defense Corps PAC spent $46,258 on direct mail attacks against Obama, and the Minuteman PAC also spent $58,266 on anti-Obama mail.

The unnerving strength of the nativist bloc in Congress is one reason why anti-immigrant groups don’t appear to be too worried these days. Another reason: president-elect Obama’s first appointment.

“Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff actually bodes well for immigration [foes],” Mark Krikorian of the anti-immigrant think-tank Center for Immigration Studies, told the conservative National Review Online.

During the campaign, Obama promised to put forward comprehensive immigration reform in the first one hundred days of his administration. The Emanuel pick makes that appear less likely. Last year, Emanuel complained, “there is no way this legislation [comprehensive immigration reform] is happening in the Democratic House, in the Democratic Senate, in the Democratic presidency, in the first term”.

While Rep. Emanuel has a solid immigration voting record, last year he raised alarms among immigrant rights supporters when he told the Washington Post, “For the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration] emerged as the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn’t realise that isn’t with the American people.” And it was Emanuel who pushed Democrats in vulnerable “frontline” districts to vote for the draconian anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill in 2005.

Putting the nativist spin on the Obama victory, Roy Beck of NumbersUSA argued that the economic crisis would force the new president to abandon his promises, claiming, “Whatever the Obama campaign may have said about immigration before the stock market crash, his priorities have clearly changed and immigration policy will have to serve his top priority of getting American workers back into jobs that offer decent wages and benefits, especially health insurance.”

Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the oldest and arguably most influential anti-immigrant group, continued the theme by casting nativism as the only choice, “To the extent that Senator Obama received a mandate, it is to put government back on the side of working Americans. A critical component of an economic recovery plan for struggling workers must be to set rational limits on immigration, enforce laws against employing illegal aliens, and resist calls for more guest workers.”

A look at state-level contests shows mixed results.

Like the federal results, discernibly nativist incumbents in state races were overwhelmingly returned to office. Going into the election, the FAIR front group State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SILLI) had 61 legislators from 33 different states. Post-election, 48 SILLI members remain in office (39 won re-election, nine had terms that weren’t up, nine lost, and nine did not seek re-election).

A well meaning, hugely symbolic, Florida ballot measure put forward by the state legislature to delete discriminatory constitutional language left over from a previous ugly period of American nativism went down to defeat. The Florida Constitution provides that equal rights are for all, but creates a glaring exception for “aliens ineligible for citizenship”, who could be stripped of the right to own property. The exception dates back to the dawn of the twentieth century when Asian-American immigrants were commonly viewed as the “Yellow Peril”. The measure was defeated 47.9% to 52.1%.

On a positive note, on Long Island where anti-immigrant sentiment simmered for years, FAIR attempted to get one of its own elected, but was rebuffed by voters. Long-time FAIR organiser Jim Staudenraus ran for the New York Assembly, but was defeated by a wide margin.

The election of 1964 provided President Johnson the opportunity to deliver on the years of struggle by the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson’s mandate helped pass a series of transformational Civil Rights laws, including the 1965 Immigration Act, which made the United States a more just and diverse nation.

Those changes paved the way for an Obama victory. To keep the hope of change in immigration policy alive and to help president-elect Obama to deliver on his promise, immigrant rights groups have scheduled a march on Washington DC for 21 January 2009, one day after the president Obama is sworn into office.

The crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election also laid the foundation for the conservative revolution. It’s too early to tell if the nativists in Congress will be able to shape the future direction of the GOP, but their numbers, network and electoral success rate give them a strong inside track.

In conjunction with a vibrant immigrant rights movement pushing for more just and humane policy, a sustained and engaged effort will be necessary to keep nativists from expanding their base and tarnishing the American promise.



Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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