Forget the White House.
“I could write in my mother’s name. I really wouldn’t make any difference, because nobody’s listening to me anyhow,” says Dan Beck, a cop and former sheriff from Ohio’s Allen County, who still wears a sheriff’s pin on his jacket lapel.
Beck was among the activists, policy wonks, and Republican legislators who are lending their voices this week to conservative radio hosts who’ve gathered in Washington to focus on illegal immigration. Organized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a leading advocacy group in the fight against illegal immigration — the confab made it clear that the presidency isn’t the movement’s primary battleground.
Many say they’re not entirely sure what Romney’s positions on immigration really are. And even they were, they wouldn’t believe the promises that he’s making anyway.
“At this point, we’re still trying to figure out — he’s still deciding his immigration position. I’d like him to be a little bit stronger on it,” says Rusty Humphries, a radio host from Atlanta, after he wrapped up a broadcast of his eponymous, nationally syndicated show. When I pressed him to elaborate, he stopped me. “Can I be honest? I’ve been in this room all day long, and this”— he gestures to a flyer — ”is the only thing I’ve seen, that’s been handed to me. So I honestly don’t have any idea what he’s said at this point.”
The flyer passed around the event highlighted a gaffe this week from Romney’s Hispanic outreach director, Bettina Inclan, who told reporters that the former Massachusetts governor was still deciding his stance on immigration. In fact, Romney has an entire section on his campaign Web site devoted to immigration: he wants to establish a verification system akin to e-Verify to screen employees on their immigration status, for instance, and “absolutely opposes any policy that would allow illegal immigrants to ‘cut in line.’” During the GOP primary, Romney routinely attacked Gingrich and other opponents for holding more moderate views.
But anti-immigration activists aren’t feeling too heartened: Inclan’s gaffe has made some even more wary about where Romney really stood, giving them even fewer reasons to believe that he’d stay faithful to his campaign promises. “I could not for a moment assure you that he would be a strong opponent of illegal immigration, or a strong supporter of illegal immigration. I don’t know. And I’m not sure he does,” former GOP Congressman and anti-immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo said outside the confab, shortly before a fan rushed up to get his autograph. (“Keep the faith!” he wrote in a copy of his book, “In Mortal Danger.”)
“[Romney’s] waffled so much. He claims to be a conservative, and he’s trying to convince people he’s truly conservative. Let me know the truth — I’ve been a cop for 30 years,” says Beck.
Instead, anti-immigration activists turning their sights to matters closer home: state laws to keep illegal immigrants away from the polls, bills to replicate Arizona’s police checks on immigration status, and initiatives by local law enforcement to carry out their own crackdowns. Beck, for one, wants more sheriffs to follow the model of Arizona’s Joe Arpaio — “my hero,” he says — and expand their efforts to identify and detain illegal immigrants, putting pressure on Washington from the ground up. Sheriffs “need to get out of their offices and band together as a group,” he says. “Then the group needs to come to Washington D.C. and start pounding on these legislators’ doors.”
They’ve also converged over voter ID laws, which have become a new battleground for conservative activists who want to crack down on voter fraud — and say that illegal immigrants are among the most common perpetrators. The Obama game plan, Tancredo claims, is “to identify those places, those cities and those states where you have high numbers of immigrants, welfare recipients, and that sort of thing, who can be energized to get to the polls — even if they’re not legally able to do so.” Tancredo, in response, is preparing to launch a project in Colorado focusing on the issue. “We’re going to be out in force in battleground states,” promises Tancredo. (As for Romney, he says, “I’ll take him.”)
The voter ID issue previously united the tea party and the anti-immigration movement in 2010, which came together to dispatch poll-watchers across various states and localities. Democrats cast that effort as voter intimidation and suppression, pointing out that there was little evidence of voter fraud in 2010, despite the right’s hullabaloo. But such grassroots focus on electoral nuts-and-bolts could end up helping the GOP ticket in 2012, Romney included: watching polling stations presumably also means voting at them.
Insurgent conservative candidates like Richard Mourdock, who just topped Richard Lugar in the Indiana Senate primary, could also inspire more enthusiasm from disillusioned conservatives. Anti-immigration activists hated Lugar’s support for the DREAM Act, which he originally co-sponsored. If Romney’s elected, Congress “is our only fallback position,” says Tancredo. If it’s Obama, “it’s the only thing we have.”
But like their counterparts on the left, the anti-immigration know that state and local efforts ultimately aren’t enough to overhaul the immigration system to their liking. If the Supreme Court strikes down Arizona SB 1070, for instance, Tancredo admits that it will be “back to the drawing board.”