Republican Senate Candidates and Immigration

The Boston Marathon bombing is already impacting the debate on immigration policy and the issue of immigration keeps coming up in the Republican senate debates. The candidates have slightly different takes on it, though they all want to seem tough on the Mexican border. I’m far from any kind of an expert on immigration policy but I’m close to an irritable observer of how politicians try to exploit animosity toward unauthorized immigrants. And a conversation with John Burt, author of Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict, has me thinking that we may be far distant from what the words of the Declaration of Independence imply about immigrants.

Visit the websites of Michael Sullivan and Gabriel Gomez and you will find Immigration a prominent topic. Dan Winslow does not feature it on his site but he has addressed immigration in the Springfield debate.  All three candidates repeat the mantra that we must secure our borders. I take this to be a sop to the far right since the Pew Hispanic Center has been finding a decline in the population of unauthorized immigrants in the country in the past several years. In May 2012 Pew reported that Net Migration From Mexico Falls to Zero—And Perhaps Less. In a December 6, 2012 release Pew reported that

The falloff in the stock of unauthorized immigrants has been driven mainly by a decrease in the number of new immigrants from Mexico, the single largest source of U.S. migrants. As the Pew Hispanic Center reported earlier this year, net immigration from Mexico to the United States has stopped and possibly reversed through 2010. At its peak in 2000, about 770,000 immigrants arrived annually from Mexico; the majority arrived illegally. By 2010, the inflow had dropped to about 140,000—a majority of whom arrived as legal immigrants, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates.

The Department of Homeland Security reports that “Along the Southwest border, DHS has increased the number of boots on the ground from approximately 9,100 Border Patrol agents in 2001 to more than 18,500 today.”

I don’t have the data on it but I’m going to guess that very few of those who do come are invading Massachusetts.

So can we stop putting increase the border patrol first? Picking on the unpopular and defenseless has never been an impressive way to show toughness anyway.

Conservatives can find some help on this, for instance Jeff Jacoby’s recent column in the Boston Sunday Globe concerning Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and our sometimes mindless adherence to following the law simply because it is law. Jacoby writes: “Think of immigration restrictionists on the right who have insisted for years that nothing is more salient on the issue of illegal immigrants than the fact of their unlawful status.”

In a more sweeping manner a recent visit with John Burt has me thinking about the implications of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It was a promise Jefferson made but knew he couldn’t keep. But America had to move toward keeping it, eventually. At Seneca Falls, a women’s rights convention demanded that promise be upheld for women. Burt makes a truly fascinating argument about how Lincoln in denying any intent to promote racial equality instead made our path to it all but inevitable. In the “I Have a Dream Speech” Dr. King demanded its fruition, one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Perhaps those words still have something to teach us, even about unauthorized immigrants.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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