Fear of immigrants fuels Buchanan's Texas hopes

January 27, 1992|By Susan Warren | Susan Warren,Special to the Sun

HOUSTON -- The way they keep pouring in is what gets to Herbert Mueller, a 61-year-old oil field roughneck who can't hide his irritation at what he thinks is happening to Texas.

"We used to have all white people working in the oil fields. Now we've got more Mexicans than white people. Companies like that cheap labor," the rig foreman said, peering out angrily from beneath his battered hard hat.

Everyone talks about the way illegal immigrants are perceived to be taking over Texas, Mr. Mueller said. But he made it clear that his concern is about jobs, not racism.

"It's our country; it ain't their country," Mr. Mueller said. "They'd sure holler if somebody went and tried to take their jobs."

Conservative Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan is aiming right at the hearts of Texans such as Mr. Mueller when he talks about "America First" and getting control of U.S. borders.

In a state where the white and black populations are feeling increasingly overwhelmed by a flood of illegal immigrants from Latin America, Mr. Buchanan's recent proposal to barricade the Mexican border makes good sense to a lot of people.

It's the kind of thing many Texans have been grumbling about for a long time under their breath, and now they've got a presidential candidate saying it out loud.

Mr. Buchanan's call for fences and ditches to stop illegal immigration taps into a rich vein of Texas-size anxiety that could seriously erode President Bush's conservative support in his adopted home state, some political observers say.

Unemployment in Texas has jumped to 7.1 percent, the domestic oil business is in tatters, and workers are facing widespread layoffs. With one-third of Texans calling themselves independent voters, that combination could add up to a serious embarrassment for Mr. Bush in the Texas primary March 10.

The president will be challenged in Texas by Mr. Buchanan and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, along with two little-known candidates. The Texas Republican Party, which has pledged its support to Mr. Bush, scoffs at the idea that either Mr. Buchanan or Mr. Duke poses a serious threat to the president in Texas, the biggest prize of Super Tuesday, with 121 Republican delegates at stake.

Fred Meyer, the Texas Republican Party chairman, thinks Mr. Buchanan's immigration message won't make a dent in Mr. Bush's traditional Republican support.

"I really don't think that immigration is significant to Republican primary voters," Mr. Meyer said.

Though no one seriously thinks Mr. Buchanan has a chance to win the primary, some political observers think he could pick up delegates from non-traditional Republican voters with his "America First" theme.

Mr. Buchanan's campaign says he won't target any specific state with any specific issue. But it is clear the candidate knows that his immigration message will have particular resonance in Texas.

"Each year millions of immigrants pour illegally over our southern border, competing for jobs and social services with American citizens," Mr. Buchanan said in a recent statement.

If he is smart, Mr. Buchanan will be honing his immigration policies for his campaign in Texas, said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a privately financed group that favors immigration restrictions.

"We've always had generalized support for controlling immigration, and what we've got now is an increase in intensity and public awareness," Mr. Stein said. "If the polls are correct and if intensity is growing as we think it is growing, he could have a significant effect."

In a 1989 poll commissioned by the immigration group and conducted by a Houston polling firm, Texans appeared to be ready to listen to a message such as Mr. Buchanan's. In the survey of 1,000 registered Texas voters, 86 percent said they considered illegal immigration a serious problem, and 87 percent said they thought border security should be a national priority.

Richard Murray, a political analyst and pollster at the University of Houston, said polls have long shown that Texans, including Hispanics, tend to be conservative on the subject of immigration. With more and more Texans worried about their jobs, the influx of illegal aliens into the state has intensified emotions.

Mr. Buchanan, a relative unknown in Texas, will need a good showing in New Hampshire's primary Feb. 18 to become a nationally recognized figure, Mr. Murray said.

But some Texans who are unfamiliar with Mr. Buchanan are well acquainted with his way of thinking.

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