Immigration's Scrambled Politics

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

In Washington last week, the immigration debate descended at times to the level of a schoolyard dispute over the semantics of amnesty. Is too! Is not! Talk radio and cable shows worked themselves into a lather over Mexican flags at pro-immigration rallies. On CNN, Chief Nativism Correspondent Lou Dobbs even came out against St. Patrick's Day.

In bright-red-state Nebraska, meanwhile, the legislature (technically nonpartisan but in fact two-thirds Republican) voted to let the children of illegal immigrants get in-state tuition breaks at state colleges.

Forget "What's the Matter With Kansas?" What's up in Nebraska?

Several things. First, Nebraska illustrates the new geographic reality of illegal immigration: They're not just in Texas (or California or Florida) anymore. In recent years the most rapid growth in the population of undocumented migrants (as well as legal immigrants) has taken place in states that previously had only a handful of foreign-born residents.

In 1990, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of undocumented migrants in states outside the six biggest in terms of illegal immigration (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey) was 400,000 -- just 12 percent of the undocumented population. By 2004 that number had grown tenfold, to almost 4 million -- 39 percent of the undocumented population. In Nebraska, the population of illegal immigrants -- drawn by jobs in meatpacking plants -- quadrupled, from 6,000 in 1990 to 24,000 in 2000; now, it may be as high as 40,000.

Second, Nebraska underscores the scrambled politics of immigration: Where a politician will come down on the issue isn't necessarily predictable based on party affiliation or geography. Nebraska's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, is a leader in backing comprehensive immigration reform. The state's Democratic senator, Ben Nelson -- up for reelection this year -- has been taking an enforcement-comes-first line; he touts a "get-tough border security bill" that features a fence extending from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. On the tuition bill, the state's Republican governor said he'd have "great reluctance" about signing it, yet two of the Republicans challenging him expressed their support for the measure in a debate last week.

Elsewhere, too, politicians of the same party in the same state find themselves on opposite sides of the immigration divide: See Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl in Arizona. And the strongest feelings against illegal immigration may not be where the immigrants already are but where they're just arriving. Republican Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico voted against the punitive House bill. Not a huge surprise: Wilson's Democratic-leaning district is 43 percent Hispanic.

But in the race to succeed Republican Rep. Jim Nussle in a swing district in northeastern Iowa, immigration has emerged as a major topic in the Republican primary, despite the district's minuscule but growing immigrant population. The three GOP candidates are vying to out-tough each other on the issue, with Brian Kennedy traveling to the banks of the Rio Grande for a "fact-finding mission" and state Rep. Bill Dix pushing legislation to cut off home mortgage loans for illegal immigrants.

Perhaps the most intriguing, and gratifying, aspect of the Nebraska debate, though, is the suggestion that the rising tide of illegal immigration can produce rational policy rather than unthinking backlash. Granted, this isn't the majority reaction. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 36 bills have been introduced in 20 states this year involving government benefits for illegal immigrants, most to restrict them. In addition, eight states are considering measures to prohibit in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants or to repeal those already in place. This includes Virginia, where then-Gov. Mark Warner vetoed such a bill in 2003. Only four states are weighing legislation that would go in the same direction as Nebraska.

The Nebraska measure -- the state would be the 10th to grant in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants -- would apply to students who have lived in the state for at least three years, graduated from a Nebraska high school and will sign affidavits swearing they will seek to become permanent legal residents. Proponents argue that giving such students a tuition break reflects the reality that they are here to stay in any event and that the state will be better off the better educated they become. And with the state losing native-born residents, advocates make the case that there is an upside to immigration. As one state senator, a rural Republican, told a GOP colleague who's running for Congress, "You wouldn't have a seat to run for if it wasn't for immigration."

D. Milo Mumgaard, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center, a public-interest law group that has been lobbying for the measure, says he's hopeful that the Nebraska experience can be replicated. "We have worked hard to cast public dialogue in a way that says beating up on immigrants is very shortsighted," he says. "What we try to do here in Nebraska is remind everyone that Nebraska in particular is a state of immigrants. We're just seeing the same old, same old. It's just this time it happens to be a bunch of brown-skinned people from south of the border."

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