A job well done by Tom Tancredo

The Colorado anti-illegal immigration crusader may have doomed his own party to a generation of irrelevance

Published October 31, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican who made his name denouncing illegal immigration, says he will not seek reelection to the House of Representatives because, "I've done what I set out to do."

"[The illegal immigration] issue now has a life of its own and it doesn't need one particular person to champion it,'' he said.

''I feel my job, my task, has been completed."

He sounds awfully self-satisfied. But a new analysis of the effect of immigration politics on the Hispanic vote in the United States suggests the job Tancredo actually accomplished was something quite different: the effective torpedoing of Republican chances for national political power for another generation.

The key finding, as detailed by Richard Nadler in "Border Wars: The Impact of Immigration on the Latino Vote" is blunt:

Immigration policies that induce mass fear among illegal residents will induce mass anger among the legal residents who share their heritage.

Nadler's research into voting patterns in congressional districts along the U.S.-Mexico border leads him to the conclusion that Hispanics (and successfully elected Congressional representatives in those regions) are not opposed, per se, to more enforcement of the border. But they do get upset at talk of mass deportation, the termination of guest worker programs, and "laws that replace civil penalties with criminal penalties for common frauds associated with work by the undocumented." And in the 2006 midterm elections, voters in those districts sent a clear message: the Republican candidates with the most extreme positions on immigration lost.

Nadler says Hispanic voters are not opposed to comprehensive immigration reform, but get riled by measures that accomplish the demonization of an entire ethnicity.

Ties of family, culture, and a shared media will communicate the fears of the group directly threatened – the illegals -- to other Latinos who are not. The profiling inevitable with the enforcement of previously flouted immigration laws will intensify the attendant emotions. To the authorities, every Latino becomes a potential criminal. To Latinos, every interaction with the authorities becomes, or symbolizes, an existential threat.

Tancredo should be proud. No single politician has done more to harshen the national political rhetoric about illegal immigration. If you want to listen to him giggling about the practicability of mass deportation, go here. Tancredo's constantly reiterated rhetoric about the formation of cultural "enclaves" and the transformation of Miami into a "third world city" and the refusal of Mexicans to "assimilate" is the bedrock stuff of nativist exclusion. And you don't have to be Hispanic to find it abhorrent, and a betrayal of the inclusive values that some of us were brought up to believe the United States represented to the rest of the world.

The calculus is clear. American citizens of Hispanic ethnicity are a constituency that will play a role in who becomes the next President of the United States and how many seats in Congress belong to Republicans or Democrats. Politicians can recognize that reality and craft legislation that takes the interests of that constituency into account, or they can try to roll back the tide and pretend that the United States can not only secure its border, but kick everybody out who has been working here illegally for the past generation. And we'll see who wins the next election.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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