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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Bashing immigrants doesn't work

For months leading up to the presidential primaries, anti-immigrant extremists sought to make political hay with immigrant-bashing. Pundits joined them with...

Special to The Times

For months leading up to the presidential primaries, anti-immigrant extremists sought to make political hay with immigrant-bashing. Pundits joined them with firm assertions that presidential candidates could gain votes by talking tough on immigration. But the extremists and the pundits are proving to be wrong.

Leading Republican candidates have tied themselves into knots over immigration, filling voter mailboxes with loaded images and packing the airwaves with messages about "leaky borders" and "insufficient vigilance."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poured millions of dollars into TV commercials in both Iowa and New Hampshire in the months leading up to the primaries, arguing that his key rivals in those states (former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. John McCain) were soft on immigrants. He pummeled both candidates in debates, forcing Huckabee to defend his position on higher-education benefits for undocumented kids and McCain to defend his position as a co-sponsor of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that supported "amnesty."

Romney thought he was following the formula for a successful campaign by fanning the flames set by conservative talk-show hosts. After all, the pundits had bought the story being pushed by the small minority of extreme conservatives: Talk tough on immigration, divide and conquer.

The only problem was, the public isn't buying it.

In the Iowa caucuses, Republican participants voted in Huckabee by a wide margin. In New Hampshire, Republicans chose McCain by a wide margin. Romney won in Michigan, but he had changed his focus from immigrant-bashing to the economy and emphasized his roots as a native son.

Looking back at Iowa, Democrats there turned out in historic numbers and voted for Sen. Barack Obama who, during a debate before the primary, voiced his support for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. This followed a huge hullabaloo in New York when Gov. Eliot Spitzer put forward — and then rescinded — a bill eliminating the requirement of proof of citizenship for driver's licenses. That bill would help ensure that everyone driving on the road is a safe, qualified driver.

(A bill doing exactly the opposite — making Washington's roads less safe by requiring proof of legal residency for a driver's license — has just been introduced in our state Legislature.)

None of the primary results is surprising when you actually look at the public polling on immigration. In as many as 22 separate national public-opinion polls between March and December last year, 55 to 83 percent of voters favored comprehensive immigration reform, including earned legalization for undocumented immigrants. Similar polls in Iowa showed that 57 percent of Iowa voters favored earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants and only 23 percent favored deportation.

Despite the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric, polls continue to show that the majority of Americans want a reasonable and fair solution to the immigration issue. They want a solution that allows immigrants to integrate successfully into their host communities and become a part of society by paying taxes, learning English and becoming citizens. This reflects the core values America holds as a nation of immigrants, providing hope and opportunity for people around the world.

American voters have the power to embarrass pundits and candidates. Immigrant-bashing isn't winning elections for candidates — not now and not before. You only have to look to the losses of U.S. Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and John Hostettler of Indiana, and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, to see this truth.

Knowing this should free up not only the candidates but all elected officials to speak sensibly about immigration. Smart policies that promote safety (like driver's licenses for everyone) should prevail. Reasonable politicians — both Republican and Democrat — who are representing growing constituencies of immigrants in their areas should feel free to speak the truth about how to help immigrants build the economies of their communities.

While some extremists continue their losing campaign to convince voters that tough talking on immigration will gain votes, serious politicians at the state level can focus on real work that recognizes that integrating immigrants is one of the state's top economic development strategies.

Yes, voters are concerned about our broken federal immigration system. There's no question they want change. But, the polls show people want sensible solutions at the federal and state levels — solutions that align with America's history and values, and help build community and benefit the economy.

Pramila Jayapal is founder and executive director of Hate Free Zone Washington, an organization advancing the principles of democracy and justice by building power in immigrant communities.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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