Tuesday, October 09, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Immigration divides GOP

If Democrats are tied in knots by the war, which is hated by a vast majority of Democratic voters, Republicans have immigration. Republican voters are supposed to be galvanized by illegal immigration, but the party is at loggerheads about what to do about it.

A few congressional Republicans sided with President Bush’s soft and gentle approach to the issue — courting Hispanic votes was a central tactic for the Bush-Rove strategy for a permanent Republican majority — but most of the party wanted a strong and punitive program to turn back and deport illegals. John McCain’s presidential campaign imploded when he voted for and stoutly defended Bush’s immigration reform.

It turns out that the schizophrenia of the Arkansas Republican Party over immigration has not healed either. Gov. Mike Huckabee went far beyond Bush in his compassion for illegal immigrants. Huckabee was already at odds with conservative Republicans from northwest Arkansas on other issues like taxation, but his temperate stance on immigration made them implacable foes. He tried to make the children of illegals eligible for state-funded college scholarships and he urged humanitarian concern for the plight of families who had come to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity.

Huckabee the presidential candidate has had his troubles on the national stump. He has repeated his mantra about Christian compassion in a few narrow venues but he quickly recognized that the base does not want to hear such pabulum. He has joined Tom Tancredo and the hotspurs demanding a wall and harsh action against illegals. He still sounds more rational and humane than all the other Republican candidates except McCain, whose campaign now seems unrecoverable, but he knows that it is not a ticket to the nomination.

The fissure in the state GOP has not closed with Huckabee’s departure for loftier climes. The other day, someone leaked to a blog and then the media an email written by Karen Ray, the new director of the Arkansas Republican Party. Writing to a Republican state legislator who was pushing for aggressive legislation restricting services to illegal immigrants, she said the legislation could be viewed as racist. Also, she said, it could drive business away from the state contrary to a central mission of the party.

“Passing fair policies that make it easier for businesses to locate in Arkansas should be our priority, not passing feel-good legislation that is unconstitutional and runs the risk of making our party look racist,” she wrote. “I’m sorry if that sounds harsh.”

Some Huckabee critics thought Huckabee was not guided by Christian charity so much as he was catering to big businesses that prosper by hiring low-paid illegal immigrants. The party’s new hired hand will get the same judgment, maybe her benediction since she did not apologize or claim that she was misunderstood. Her longevity in the position will be instructive.

The issue does not lend itself to much persuasion or even reason. The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation did a comprehensive study, which showed that if illegal immigrants were driven out of the state, as a new Oklahoma law proposes to do there, it would cost Arkansas companies about $1.4 billion a year in lost production and raise costs by $95 million through higher wages. So treacherous is the issue that when the normally intrepid Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce was asked to testify at a legislative hearing on illegal immigration it mutely offered the Rockefeller report. If the chamber has an opening, we know of a qualified hire with political experience who may be available soon.