Wedge Issue No More? Anti-Immigrant Campaigning Doesn't Pay Off This Time

By Pilar Marrero, La Opinión and FI2W reporter

On Election Day, Colorado became the first state to reject an initiative by the controversial Ward Connerly, one of the nation’s leading opponents of affirmative action.

In Arizona, voters decided not to pass Proposition 202, a state ballot initiative that would have imposed extreme penalties on business owners that hire undocumented immigrants.

Illegal immigration foe Lou Barletta lost in his bid for Congress.

Illegal immigration foe Lou Barletta lost in his bid for Congress.

Some politicians who are known for their anti-immigrant positions also came up short on Nov. 4: Lou Barletta, the famed mayor of Hazleton, Pa., lost his bid to become a congressman. His city is well known as the municipality that started the rush of local ordinances against undocumented immigrants.

This time, anti-immigrant and anti-minority proposals and candidates did not do as well as in previous elections. The reasons may vary: more Democratic voters, higher immigrant participation, more important or pressing issues, like the economy. It may also be that blaming immigrants for society’s ills is becoming a less effective political strategy.

Take what happened in congressional contests. Of 21 races for the Senate and the House where the issue of immigration was brought up as a problem (usually by the Republican candidate), 19 were won by the more moderate politician, usually a Democrat . The “enforcement only” crowd didn’t have too many successes.

“It’s clear that the Republican strategy to use immigration as a wedge issue turned into a spectacular failure this year,” claims a report by NDN, an organization that promotes moderate immigration policies within the Democratic Party.

There were some exceptions: in Nebraska, where 88.6 percent of the population is white, voters passed a Ward Connerly-backed initiative against affirmative action. And in Columbia County, Oregon voters approved a local measure to fine companies that hire undocumented workers up to $10,000 dollars and require posting “no illegals” signs at every construction site.

After a couple of years of state and local initiatives that took advantage of the anti-immigrant environment, things calmed down somewhat this year, immigrants’ rights activists said.

“We were expecting many more initiatives than we actually had this year,” said Elena Lacayo of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Nancy Ramirez, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), said that some initiatives that were proposed never made it to the ballot. In Arizona, for example, nine propositions dealing with illegal immigration were initiated, but only two gathered enough signatures, and only one, Prop 202, made it on to the ballot. It lost.

This year, anti-immigrant rhetoric was not a sure ticket to success.

The reason may be a temporary lull in the effectiveness of the issue as a political weapon or it may be something more durable. In any case, many localities and states have already enacted dozens of anti-immigrant laws that are still in the books, though some have been overturned by the courts.

“We’ll keep working on fighting them,” Ramirez said. “I don’t think they’ll go away any time soon.”