Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the two presidents of that name, has courageously come out against the new anti-immigration law in Arizona. "It places a significant burden on local law enforcement and you have civil liberties issues that are significant as well," Bush said in a telephone interview with Politico. Conservative darling, and soon-to-be GOP Senate nominee Marco Rubio has also voiced concerns about the law. And, Karl Rove, never known as a sentimentalist when it comes to civil rights, has also warned about the political consequences of the GOP becoming tagged as the anti-immigrant party.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson also joined the pro-immigrant bandwagon in the Republican ranks. He points out that Gov. Pete Wilson’s support for Proposition 187, an anti-immigration measure in California in the 1990s, ended up costing the Republicans dearly in that state. But, he notes that in embracing pro-immigrant policies, men like Jack Kemp and George W. Bush not only gained a heftier share of the Latino vote, they gained in stature too. Gerson notes that Mike Huckabee and Meg Whitman have also voiced reservations about the new law and that "Republicans wishing to gain some everlasting credit should join them."
Gerson’s message evidently did not make it to Alabama. There, Tim James, a Republican running for governor, has run a blatantly racist ad that says, among other things, "This is Alabama; we speak English." He promises that if he is elected governor he will end the current practice of the state’s DMV which adminsters driving exams in 12 foreign languages. He says it is costly and that his background as a businessman leads him to look for such savings. What he doesn’t tell prospective voters is that implementing such a policy would probably mean forfeiting tens of millions of dollars in federal transportation dollars. Businessman my tuckus - oops, I guess Yiddish doesn't cut it in Alabama.
Mr. James never met my grandmother. She was from what was then Poland and is now part of Belarus. She came to America, married a fellow Pole, and started a family. She gave birth to twelve children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. My grandfather was a farmer and sometimes bootlegger and he earned enough money to support the family modestly. My grandmother had her hands full cooking for the large family, keeping their small home clean, and, of course, attending daily Mass. There was no need for her to learn English, and she never did. If she had wanted to, there were opportunities to do so, but she chose not to. I do not know if she ever procured, or ever wanted, a driver’s license, but if she had, I do not see why her decision to remain a homemaker in no need of English should have legally prevented her from obtaining a driver’s license with a test administered in a language that was as common on the streets of Jewett City, Connecticut as Spanish is in some neighborhoods today. I suspect back then, the solution might not have been a test in Polish but to allow one of her children to take the test with her, doing the translation. But, such ad hoc arrangements are no longer possible in our litigious society because they leave the state open to a lawsuit whenever someone with a license has an accident and it turns out they did not take their exam alone.
Of course, Mr. James is not alone. If supporting immigrants adds stature according to Gerson, Sen. John McCain is the incredibly shrinking Republican. He has forfeited his maverick credential, earned in part because of his championing of immigration reform when President Bush pushed the effort back in 2007, and now says he supports the Arizona law. I guess a primary challenge on your right will do that to you. And, speaking of 2007, it is well to remember that the reform effort died in the Senate when a cloture vote failed on a 46-53 vote. 15 Democrats and 37 Republicans voted to kill the bill and all of them in both parties should hold their heads in shame for that vote.
Still, the Arizona law is a more vexing challenge for the GOP today than it is for Democrats. I do not know of any Democratic elected official, at least no prominent one, who has voiced support for the Arizona measure. But, Democrats should resist the desire to pursue the issue merely to gain a partisan advantage. They need to pursue a bipartisan solution because that is the only kind of solution with a shot at making it through the Senate. And, without action at the national level, the lives of immigrants will continue to be threatened by racist laws like that in Arizona and by racist leaders like Tim James. The immigrants don’t deserve that and, frankly, neither does the GOP. They deserve better. Let’s hope they choose it.