Dog whistle politics on immigration

Why exactly would any undocumented immigrant worker come out of the woodwork for George Bush’s promise to give them a three-year temporary work permit? Well, none, really. So why in the world would he propose it? Answering that is a little more complicated, but it speaks volumes about the administration’s difficulty in keeping its coalition together.

If you are an undocumented worker, you’d have to be crazy to take this deal: most undocumented are in this country to get a better life, not to hang out for three years and then go home. Compare Bush’s deal with the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), passed in 1986: that law gave undocumenteds amnesty–without, it should be noted, increasing illegal immigration to this country one bit.

Here’s Bush’s problem: he’s got to look tough on immigration to please the base. But he also wants to attract the Latino vote, which is hard to do given his policies. So what he does is issue a totally cosmetic guest-worker program that does nothing, and combine it with a lot of tough-sounding enforcement measures.

The key is to get all the elements of the coalition to play along. So:

Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language television network, keeps broadcasting the theme of “las visas Bush” to its watchers.

Large agricultural interests push hard for this thing because it gives them a way to avoid employer sanctions while maintaining absolute control over their impoverished workers. Under current law, growers threaten workers with reporting them to “La Migra”; if Bush’s plan passes, all they need to do is fire them and THEN report them–their work permits expire if they don’t hold a job.

So far, so good. Bush gets to pretend to Latinos that he’s generous, help out his large business buddies, and tell the base that he is being tough on border control.

But now the right wing has disrupted the whole thing by insisting that Bush’s proposal is too generous, even though it does absolutely nothing for immigrants. The extreme right is so fired up after the Miers’ debacle that it isn’t even hearing the dog whistle anymore. One can imagine a frustrated Rove now: “Will you guys just shut up?! This is nothing!”

The problem for the Republicans is that once you start letting scapegoating rhetoric out of the bottle, it’s hard to delicately manipulate it. It takes on a life of its own. Especially on issues like immigration, the GOP has fed its base so much red meat that it won’t take anything else. It’s been hoisted on its own petard. And I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them.

–Jonathan Zasloff

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.