Mike Huckabee on “violence and terror” at home

The presidential hopeful spins Bhutto's assassination as a U.S. border-security issue.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Mike Huckabee,

From riots and instability to serious questions about what happens to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, the fallout from Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is already rippling around the world. To listen to Mike Huckabee, though, the real danger posed by the al-Qaida attack on Bhutto could be stopped by… building a fence on the Mexican border.

For the day and a half since Bhutto’s death, Huckabee has been linking the situation in Pakistan to illegal immigration in the U.S., in a rhetorical move that makes more political sense than policy sense. “A lot of Americans sitting in Pella, Iowa, maybe look halfway around the world and say, ‘How does that affect me?’” Huckabee said at a morning press conference at the Pizza Ranch here (where, a sign helpfully informs you, the buffet is not available for takeout). “We need to understand that violence and terror is significant when it happens in Pakistan; it’s more significant when it could happen in our own cities, and it happens if people can slip across our border and we have no control over them.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Iowa voters truly can’t look at the Bhutto murder and see that it’s never a good thing when al-Qaida operatives can kill popular politicians anywhere — let alone in a key U.S. ally with nuclear missiles — Huckabee’s up to something strange here. On Thursday night, he suggested U.S. authorities should step up surveillance of Pakistanis crossing the border. Friday, he claimed 660 Pakistanis had been nabbed by the Border Patrol last year trying to sneak into the country from Mexico. For a governor with little foreign policy experience who wants to be president of a country at war, turning a vexing international crisis into an illegal immigration problem is probably not a bad political pivot.

The problem is, Pakistanis are not flooding the border illegally. Huckabee’s count of 660 appears to be a mistaken total that he arrived at by adding several years’ worth of arrests together. Department of Homeland Security stats say federal immigration cops caught 721 Pakistanis in 2006, but there’s no way to know how many of them were arrested anywhere near Mexico. Probably not many — most experts say as many as 40 percent of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. came here on a legal visa and stayed after it expired, rather than hiring a coyote to haul them through the desert. Official government estimates say there are probably more undocumented Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese here than Pakistanis, though Huckabee claimed Pakistan was sending an ever-larger share of illegal traffic. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told me a couple of months ago that authorities really weren’t that worried about jihadists coming into the country from the Southwest. And of course (at the risk of making this post a Rudy Giuliani item), the closest the 9/11 hijackers got to Mexico was when some of them lived in southern California, biding their time on student visas or other legal papers.

The idea that a suicide bombing in Pakistan should immediately light a fire under border security efforts leaves me wondering whether Huckabee really understands immigration. He already reversed his position on the issue, once he got within striking distance of Mitt Romney, by discarding his earlier rhetoric about compassion for illegal immigrants in favor of tough talk about preventing amnesty. It only took two weeks of meetings between Huckabee and Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist for Huckabee to come around to the more conservative point of view — after a year in which he and John McCain spent considerable time watching from the wings as their rivals rushed to outdo Tom Tancredo.

Even before then, he tended to use bizarre metaphors when he talked about border security — he once told me that if Wal-Mart can keep track of their Super Saver Center inventory, the government should be able to keep track of who’s coming and going at borders. When Huckabee says, as he often does, that “it ought to be at least as difficult to get across an international border as it is to get on an airplane in our own hometown,” he ignores the fact that the whole problem with illegal immigration is that immigrants manage to avoid any guards who could ask for their documents. (Or make them take their shoes off and deposit their liquids and gels in a tray.) Quick quips like that one have made it possible for Huckabee to gloss over a serious policy problem, one that Congress and the White House have been completely unable to move forward on for two years.

Illegal immigration is the hottest issue for many Iowa Republicans, and given Huckabee’s track record as Arkansas governor — supporting in-state college tuition for some undocumented immigrants there, pushing for Mexico to open a consulate in Little Rock — I can’t blame him for trying to give voters what they want to hear. But isn’t the debate over our borders inflamed enough without would-be presidents saying things like (as Huckabee did Friday morning), “The immigration issue is not so much about people coming to pick lettuce or make beds — it’s about people who could come with a shoulder-fired missile”?

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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