PERRY, Iowa—‘Make yourself at home!” invites the rustic sign on the road into this smalltown 40 miles northwest of Des Moines that tells big truths about immigration.
Perry was a railroad town founded in 1869 by a prospector headed to the California gold rush. The trains last stopped here in 1980. The well-paid union jobs at the meatpacking plant are gone, too. When Iowa Beef Packers took over the closed Oscar Mayer factory in 1989, it began recruiting immigrant labor, a tradition that the current owner, Tyson Foods, continues. The influx has transformed Perry, population 8,882, into a place where one in three residents is Latino. Many don’t speak English. Nearly half of the public schoolchildren and the majority of those eligible for free and discounted lunches are Hispanic.
Perry’s demographic changes have created obvious culture clashes, but they have also staved off the postindustrial death that struck so many Midwestern communities. The historic downtown, stretching about seven blocks from the post office to the empty storefront where Lisa’s Pub used to be, would be ghostly if not for the Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants and the Latino grocery store.
Here, as in other increasingly diverse parts of Iowa and of other traditionally white states, the national debate over immigration hits home. “I have some issues with illegal immigration,” said 63-year-old Brian Parker, wearing a Iowa State fleece behind the counter of the flower store that his dad opened in 1951. “On the other hand, if you put yourself in their shoes, things must be pretty dire for them to support themselves. They have a perilous journey. I just wish we had a way to legalize more people coming into this country, because it’s important that they become part of our society.”
A few blocks south, lifelong Perry resident Bill Coffin, 65, owns Shoppe of Oddities, a store stocked with junk or treasure, depending on your perspective. The sign on the door advertises “cold canned pop for 50 cents.” Coffin keeps his jeans up with bright green suspenders and offers a visitor a chair. “A lot of these people will work for anything,” he says, “which makes less of a marketplace for people who are citizens.”
It’s the sleeper issue of the 2012 election. Again and again, debate over illegal immigration has punctuated a campaign billed as a referendum on the economy. Acting like candidates for president of their local Minuteman chapter, the contenders for the GOP nomination have been competing to out-vigilante each other, rousing some ardent conservatives. But drill down into the polling, spend an afternoon in Perry, or consider Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls even after he proposed an immigration policy that rivals tarred as “amnesty,” and it becomes clear that Republican voters’ views are more nuanced. What’s more, hard-line rhetoric in recent elections has alienated Latino voters at a time when their power to swing elections is only growing.
Antithetical to its past and potentially poisonous to its future, the GOP’s militant line risks long-term self-sabotage. “That rhetoric comes across as more than anti-illegal-immigration. It’s perceived as anti-immigration, which in turn is perceived by Hispanic voters as anti-Hispanic,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman. “When you’re getting a shrinking percentage of the fastest-growing share of the electorate, you don’t have to be a math major to figure out that’s not good, long-term, for the party.”
“For the most part, we are a city that very success-fully blends our cultures.”—Perry’s mayor, Jay Pattee
So why the hard line? For starters, previously homogeneous areas of the country are becoming more racially diverse at a time of deep anxiety about the economy. According to the 2010 census, Hispanics constitute more than 16 percent of the population, up from 12.5 percent in 2000 and 9 percent in 1990. For some recession-weary voters, angst over “foreigners” taking “American jobs” and sapping taxpayer-funded services stems from fears about their own financial future. “When the economy is booming and the economy nears levels of full employment, the intensity of the issue abates,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “In a bad economy, the issue intensifies. And you’ve always had that dynamic, whether it be with Italians or Irish and now largely with Mexicans or Central Americans.”
In addition, opposition to immigration reflects the Republican Party’s rightward lurch since President Obama’s 2008 victory and the rise of the tea party. The conservative activists driving the GOP agenda have a zero-tolerance policy, whether the issue is debt, taxes, or climate change. When it comes to illegal immigration, any response less than a full-throated declaration to seal the border is considered heresy. This is not the same party that produced Ronald Reagan, who granted amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal immigrants; twice elected George W. Bush, who urged Congress to give undocumented workers a legal route to citizenship; and nominated McCain, who cowrote similar legislation with liberal icon Edward Kennedy.
The rancorous debate over those reforms fueled a Latino backlash that helped Democrats take back Congress in 2006, win the presidency in 2008, and hold the Senate despite a wave election in 2010. “Candidates that focus exclusively on border protection and attack other candidates that take a more comprehensive view of border protection and additional measures will not be as effective in the general election,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican Party leader on Hispanic issues, said in an e-mail. “And, yes, tone matters in politics.”
Yet the Republican presidential candidates seem to fear the tea party more than the threat of alienating Latinos over the long term. At the height of his popularity, Herman Cain suggested killing rogue border-crossers with an electrified fence. Michele Bachmann proposes to round up 11 million illegal immigrants and ship them back to their home countries “in steps.” Even Gingrich, who called for a “humane” immigration policy, wants English to be the national language—which could make it illegal to print ballots and other government forms in Spanish—and favors a South Carolina law allowing the police to demand citizenship papers during routine traffic stops.
The harsh rhetoric couldn’t come at a worse time for a party eager to exploit rising disenchantment with President Obama. A recent Latino Decisions survey found that just 43 percent of respondents said they are certain to vote for Obama in 2012, compared with the 68 percent who voted for him in 2008. Hit by unemployment and the housing crisis, frustrated by the president’s broken promise to overhaul the immigration sys-tem, the Hispanic community has reason to feel betrayed.
And it is poised to swing several battleground states in 2012, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada. “The demographics are clear that the Hispanic vote will be a major factor in national elections,” McCain said this month on CNN’s State of the Union. “I view the Hispanic vote [as being] up for grabs.” At this rate, however, Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot.
HARD LINES PAY OFF
Texas Gov. Rick Perry bounded into the Republican race on Aug. 13, confident that job growth back home, a big-state money machine, and his roots in the evangelical and tea party movements would ruin Mitt Romney’s ride to the nomination. Some of the earliest and most important backers of “America’s jobs governor” had no idea that, a decade ago, he had signed the nation’s first law offering in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. (It passed with overwhelming Republican support.)
But Perry wasn’t campaigning in Texas anymore. His path to the nomination began in Iowa, where support for a bill like Perry’s had helped abbreviate a half-dozen political careers—what one retired lawmaker described as “a history of carnage.” The facts about the Texas tuition law became a scorching line of attack from Perry’s rivals in nationally televised debates. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney never let up. On the eve of Perry’s planned visit to Iowa in October, the Romney team distributed fliers asserting that, if Iowa had given the same tuition breaks, it would have cost state taxpayers $70,000 per student. The campaign arranged phone conferences with thousands of voters in which a border-state sheriff tarred Perry as “part of the illegal immigration problem.”
It wasn’t a hard sell in Iowa. Listen to the campaign ad that a restaurant owner used to defeat a 10-year veteran of the Iowa House in a 2006 congressional primary: Illegal aliens are flooding into our country. Why? Because politicians like Bill Dix give them special benefits like lowered tuition cost. Bill Dix voted to use your tax dollars to lower tuition for illegal aliens…. The Dix record: more money for illegal aliens, less money for Iowa seniors.
Perry’s freefall had a number of causes, to be sure, but his bumbling defense of the tuition breaks and his disdain for proposals to build a fence along the entire Mexican border became outsized liabilities. “The Romney people know this is sensitive ground in Iowa and have been very effective at capitalizing on it,” said former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants, who backs Romney. “Perry’s position on immigration is his Achilles’ heel in Iowa.… It’s a killer.”
Iowa is one of the least diverse states, but its Hispanic population soared by about 83 percent in the past decade as thousands of immigrants filled hardscrabble jobs at meatpacking plants. Hispanics now account for 5 percent of the population, up from 2.8 percent in 2000, according to the census. Federal raids in 2006 and 2008 rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers at two Iowa slaughterhouses, shining a harsh spotlight on new arrivals.
Yet while the tuition breaks were clearly a sore spot, polls suggest that Iowa voters’ broader views of immigration are more complicated. Less than half of the likely Republican caucus-goers in a new poll say that halting illegal immigration is “critical,” while solid majorities point to job creation or debt and spending reductions as priorities. The survey, sponsored by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of elected officials and business leaders who support visa reform, also found that less than one-quarter of these GOP voters oppose plans to expand legal immigration. “This is a complicated political issue that frequently suffers when candidates oversimplify it to score political points,” said Republican consultant John Stineman, who is promoting the poll’s results.
Campaigns, however, are won and lost in sound bites. So Romney began firing his soft-on-immigration broadsides at Perry just two weeks after the Texas governor entered the race in mid-August. The tuition policy allowed Romney to shore up his conservative credentials and present a clear contrast, because he had vetoed similar legislation as governor of Massachusetts.
By October, Perry was retooling his inner circle. He tapped Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who helped Rick Scott get elected as governor last year in Florida, partly by proposing an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration. “Especially if that’s one of the only things people know about you, the issue is very symbolic and can be a defining issue, because in the minds of most Republican primary voters, it is a question of fairness,” Fabrizio says. “It’s about not letting people jump the line. That’s a basic Republican belief.”
That’s why it rankled when Perry, sounding like a liberal scold, lashed out at his critics in a Sept. 22 debate in Florida: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” Indignant Republicans, last they checked, still had hearts, but they bristled at illegal immigrants’ getting government perks. Fabrizio, sitting in the debate audience and not yet on board with Perry’s team, thought, “They were clearly not prepared for this.”
Ever since the 19th century, eras of economic unease have often awakened nativist passions. William Jennings Bryan’s proclaimed his “Cross of Gold” speech against a backdrop of pervasive anti-Irish and anti-German virulence. In Strangers in the Land, a seminal book on American nativist trends, John Higham points to a fear among 19th-century nativists that immigrants would take over American land—similar to the current fear, among seal-the-border advocates, that immigrants will drain government services.
The current grassroots-fueled enthusiasm for rigid immigration policy worries many members of the political establishment, who anticipate its effect on the Republican brand. “It definitely hurts us as a party,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. “I understand that those candidates understand that they’re speaking to the base. My point is that that’s not the base. It’s a very shrill, right-wing part of the party that shows up at debates.”
Polling backs up the notion that vocal, anti-immigrant Republicans represent a minority of the party. A United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection survery released last week found that only one-third of Republicans want to deport all undocumented workers. A plurality of GOP voters prefer a middle ground of effectively granting amnesty to long-term, law-abiding illegal immigrants. A new Pew Research Center poll uncovered similar ambivalence, with Republicans and Republican-leaning adults evenly divided between emphasizing border patrols and balancing security with a path to citizenship. “Common sense tells us we’re not going to take 10 or 12 or 14 million people and put them in jail and deport them,” said Haley Barbour, a former national party chairman, in a 2010 interview with the Hoover Institution.
Unlike other demographic trends that hurt the political parties—Democrats losing white voters in the South, for instance, or Republicans losing their once-solid New England brand—Latino growth was not always at odds with Republican interests. In 1986, President Reagan signed a bipartisan bill effectively granting amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, although it ultimately failed to secure the border or create a successful guest-worker system. “I believe in the idea of amnesty,” Reagan said in a 1984 debate, “for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though, sometime back, they may have entered illegally.”
Reagan’s home state of California, which voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 through 1988, eventually turned hostile toward Latinos. In 1994, voters adopted Proposition 187, which blocked illegal immigrants from receiving public services and fueled anti-immigration sentiment. By 1996, President Clinton, under pressure from House Republicans, cut welfare benefits for legal immigrants during their first five years on U.S. soil.
President Bush, Clinton’s successor, tried to reverse course, perceiving in the Hispanic population boom a long-term political opportunity to reshape the Republican coalition. His born-again Christianity appealed to socially conservative Latinos, and he staked much of his second-term political capital on comprehensive immigration reform. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 reelection—a high-water mark for a Republican presidential candidate. But hamstrung by an unpopular war in Iraq and defeated on his plan to reform Social Security, the president saw his party revolt. House Speaker Dennis Hastert refused to bring up the immigration legislation, and Bush surrendered. Ultimately, he signed a GOP-backed bill focused on border enforcement, including a 700-mile fence.
McCain and Kennedy partnered on legislation that did what voters say they want: It addressed security concerns and the undocumented workers who are already here. It would have toughened implementation of immigration laws and beefed up enforcement (at the border and in workplaces). It also would have established a guest-worker program to streamline the flow of immigrant labor. The Senate never voted on the measure; five years later, McCain distanced himself from the legislation when he parried a 2010 tea party primary challenge with the help of a controversial campaign ad exhorting the government to “complete the danged fence.” This week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments over an Arizona law that cracks down on illegal immigration—highlighting the national failure to resolve any of these issues.
It was a chilly Saturday morning in mid-October when Michele Bachmann’s campaign bus rolled into Perry. But it was warm and inviting inside the Hotel Pattee, a century-old inn that celebrates the town’s international influences with flags from around the world and guest rooms with Mexican, Southeast Asian, and African themes. The wall of the conference room where Bachmann spoke featured a proverb: When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.
Bachmann had come prepared with statistics. Illegal immigration costs U.S. taxpayers $113 billion a year, she said. In Iowa, the costs reach $350 million, almost 6 percent of the state’s total budget. “Sometimes we’re told it’s not OK to talk about illegal immigration—that somehow that means that we’re prejudiced or we’re bigoted or that we’re biased against Hispanics,” Bachmann told the sympathetic crowd of about 50. “That’s not what I hear from the people of Iowa.”
Her figures came from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, condemned by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group.” (FAIR denies the characterization.) A 2007 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office noted that illegal immigrants pay income, sales, and property taxes. The report described illegals’ burden on state and local governments as modest and concluded that determining a nationwide fiscal impact was impossible.
Standing at Bachmann’s side was Van Hipp, introduced as the chairman of Americans for Securing the Border. He presented the group’s pledge to build a “double fence” along the Mexican border. Bachmann signed it, declaring, “It will be every mile, every yard, every foot, every inch of that border.” (Gingrich recently signed the pledge, too.)
Hipp’s appearance is a reminder that financial considerations, not just economic ones, are shaping the debate; there is money to be made by cultivating nativist feelings. Hipp, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, is also the chairman of American Defense International, which reported $2.24 million in lobbying income this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One client is Raytheon, a manufacturer of border-security technology. Hipp insisted that his firm represents Raytheon’s bids on defense contracts only, but fighting illegal immigration can be a lucrative business: Under the Bush administration, Boeing landed a $1 billion contract to build a “virtual fence” of border sensors and communications towers. (The contract was canceled in 2011 as members of Congress declared it a failure.)
Bachmann’s campaign was worried about hecklers in Perry, but only one man, 32-year-old Eddie Diaz, rose to challenge her. He asked why she chided illegal immigrants for dropping out of high school but opposed offering them financial incentives to go to college. “Why would you choose to punish these kids who came here when they were young, no choice of their own?” he asked. She replied that they were breaking the law.
Diaz, the son of legal Mexican immigrants, moved here with his family when he was a high school junior. His parents worked overtime at the meatpacking plant to help put him through Iowa State University; he served in the Marines, earned a master’s degree in education from Drake University, and got elected to the Perry City Council. “It seems every election cycle eventually a politician will try to use immigration as a stepping-stone to the Republican base, without remorse or any accountability,” said Diaz, a high school social-studies teacher, in a telephone interview.
Perry Mayor Jay Pattee, who shares colonial roots with the hotel’s founders, missed Bachmann’s event because he was opening another five-and-dime store. “She came to the wrong town,” said the mayor, who has voted for Democrats and Republicans. “I’m not saying there haven’t been bumps on the road and long-term residents who didn’t like the fact that people who looked differently and spoke differently came to our town,” he added. “But for the most part, we are a city that very successfully blends our cultures.”
Steven Kaiser, a 58-year-old lawyer, didn’t see Bachmann that day, either. But over a recent lunch of chicken and mashed potatoes at the Mars Dairy Bar, he said he was troubled by the Texas governor’s law offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He recalled the costs of putting his own two kids through the University of Iowa. “We started saving before our children were born,” Kaiser said. “We opened a savings account and then invested it in Smith Barney.”
On the same day that Bachmann was in Perry, Cain was campaigning in Tennessee. “It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified,” Cain said, describing his proposed border fence. “And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, It will kill you—Warning.” He added, “If we have to put troops with real guns and real bullets for part of it, we can do that, too.” Cain’s militancy appeared to buoy him in the polls, and the Republican establishment didn’t object to his proposal. It wasn’t until three weeks later that one of the party’s most prominent Latinos, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, told the Hispanic Leadership Forum in Dallas that “the rhetoric has gotten heated.”
Rubio was once an immigration moderate. On his way to becoming the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, he cosponsored tuition legislation in 2003 and 2004 patterned after the law that Perry signed in Texas. Half a dozen bills targeted at illegal immigrants died under Rubio’s watch as speaker. But now, hailed by the tea party and widely regarded as a top contender for the vice presidential slot on the national ticket next year, Rubio no longer backs the tuition incentives, hewing to current party orthodoxy. “As a general rule, people in the United States who are here without documentation should not benefit from programs like in-state tuition,” he said in October.
Leaders who are willing to tackle the issue of illegal immigration beyond border security are scarce, in either party. Former Sen. Mel Martinez, who was the chamber’s lone immigrant when he served, received bricks in the mail from fence proponents when he worked with McCain on immigration reform. He conceded last month that it was a “mistake” not to focus more on border security. Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a lead negotiator on immigration reform in the Bush administration, declined an interview because of his position as a top trade adviser to Romney. “I love talking about immigration,” Gutierrez said in an e-mail. “But since I joined the campaign I don’t speak for myself.”
The Republican Party’s focus on border vigilance threatens to narrow the political openings that Obama’s shortfalls created. A strict deportation policy put the president on pace to ship out more illegal immigrants than his predecessor, and his limited efforts last year on behalf of the Dream Act—granting legal status to illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military—also disappointed Latinos. They generally grade Obama somewhere between the overall disapproval registered by whites and the loyal support shown by blacks. “I do worry that if we don’t get the immigration debate right, [the GOP will] squander that opportunity,” Gillespie said.
Without some course correction, Republicans will face an increasing challenge: a blooming electoral bloc that may perceive the party as hostile to its interests. “The tone of how we talk about the issue, the lack of respect shown to the Hispanic community, are problems that Republicans have, and it’s a long-term problem,” said Schmidt, McCain’s former adviser. The overall foreign-born share of the population, which dipped to a historic low of 4.7 percent in 1970, is on a steady upward trend. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, immigrants will swell to 19 percent of the population by 2050; Hispanics will account for 29 percent of the population by then, more than double their share in 2005.
Other party strategists say that fears about illegal immigration are too ingrained, reinforcing the party’s imperative to offset potential losses among Hispanic voters by trolling for additional older, blue-collar white voters. In 2000, 54 percent of whites voted Republican. In last year’s midterms, 60 percent of white voters in House elections backed the GOP, according to exit polling.
If Republicans can’t reconcile voters’ nativist leanings with the undeniable demographic realities, Latinos could exact retribution. A precedent exists: Black voters saw a Republican Party that failed to embrace civil rights and instead followed its “Southern strategy” into the wrong side of history for short-term electoral gain. The 18 percent of the black vote that Richard Nixon got in 1972 is still the highest share won by any GOP nominee in modern times. If Republicans fall into the same trap with Latinos, the implications would shake out far beyond Perry, Iowa, for decades to come.
Sarah Huisenga contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.