Anti-immigrant rhetoric heats up within the GOP

September 03, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. -- Anti-immigrant rhetoric is heating up the Republican presidential contest and gaining applause in some surprising places.

Here in the New Hampshire state capital -- 2,000 miles from the Mexican border -- Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas drew his loudest and most prolonged ovation during a campaign speech last week when he called for restricting welfare benefits for immigrants.

California Gov. Pete Wilson got a similar response when he attacked illegal immigration the same day in Portsmouth, N.H., which has welcomed seafarers for more than three centuries and, like the rest of this New England state, has relatively few foreign-born residents.

"It's obviously on people's minds," says Charles Black, a top strategist for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's campaign.

He admits that he was surprised, through Iowa, when Mr. Gramm's attacks on welfare for immigrants turned out to be among his very bestapplause lines.

Some Republicans fear that the immigration issue poses political risks for the party, while others say that it is too soon to say how big a role it will assume in the 1996 campaign.

But as Congress returns this week to take up issues of welfare reform and reducing federal spending, the cost of providing social services to immigrants will play an important part in the debate.

"Immigration has become a national issue, and it's becoming an increasingly big issue in places across the country that have relatively low impact from the foreign-born population, places like Nebraska, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, wherever," said K. C. McAlpine, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His organization is pushing for a five-year moratorium on most legal immigration.

The United States is often celebrated as a nation of immigrants, but nativist sentiment has flared up from time to time, usually during periods of economic distress, as Americans seek

scapegoats for their, and the nation's, woes.

The apparent surge in anti-immigrant sentiment these days, however, comes at a time of overall economic growth. Public discontent remains high, though, with wages for many, continuing to stagnate and memories of recession still fresh in the public's mind.

One reason the issue may be touching a nerve is the sheer number of immigrants. There has been an immigration explosion over the past quarter-century, most of it from Mexico, according to a recently released government report.

22 million foreigners

The Census Bureau reported last month that the nation's foreign-born population is now at its highest level since World War II -- 8.7 percent, or 22 million people -- and is expanding at a record rate.

By one estimate, almost half the country's population growth since 1970 is due to immigrants and their children.

In places with large immigrant populations, both legal and illegal, the public debate has centered on the cost of providing state services to noncitizens.

Last year, voters in California -- where almost one of every four residents is foreign-born -- approved Proposition 187, which would deny most social services to illegal immigrants.

Efforts are under way to put similar measures on the ballot in Florida and Arizona.

Elsewhere, the immigration issue appears to be tied to broader concerns about wasteful government spending and crime, as well as xenophobia, if conversations with Republican voters in New Hampshire last week are any indication.

David Lundgren, a 43-year-old chiropractor from Londonderry, N.H., says he's torn between voting for Mr. Gramm and Mr. Wilson in next February's GOP presidential primary. He says he likes Mr. Gramm's tough talk about crime and the death penalty but is also "impressed with the way Wilson is trying to shut off the flow of illegal aliens."

Dick Thompson, a 55-year-old marketing executive, believes that lot of people agree" with what Mr. Wilson is saying about immigration. In southern New Hampshire, he said, local residents are increasingly worried about the possibility of crime spreading into their neighborhood from the Hispanic sections of nearby Lawrence, Mass.

Mr. McAlpine, the immigration activist, says economic pressures have also played a role. In sectors as diverse as the meat packing industry of Iowa and the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he said, native-born workers are having to compete with new immigrants for jobs.

"It's being felt across the country," he said, "and people are responding to that with a sense that our country's borders are out of control."

As the campaign gathers steam in the post-Labor Day period, those attitudes could increase as the presidential candidates join the immigration debate and Congress takes up welfare reform and other issues related to immigration.

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