Martinez's Warning to Republicans

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on October 7, 2009

As someone who lived in Arizona in the 1990s, when a large influx of illegal immigrants were met with a backlash that continues today, I agree with the warning from recently retired GOP Sen. Mel Martinez in today's Washington Post. It comes in a column from Michael Gerson, who writes of the electoral risks to Republicans if they are associated with virulent criticism of illegal immigrants.

"There are lots of Hispanics to the right of you and me on immigration," Martinez told Gerson, a fellow advocate of "comprehensive immigration reform," i.e., amnesty and increased immigration. "But they think, 'Republicans just don’t like us.'" Martinez went on to say that some Republicans in elective office have made "pretty divisive use of immigration policy. It is more a matter of tone, of how you talk about immigrants. It has made Hispanics feel unwelcome, unwanted."

Many of my Mexican-American neighbors in Arizona resented the illegal influx from Mexico, which imposed strains on their neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals and helped employers keep wages low. Exit polls in the 2004 elections showed that 47 percent of the Hispanic voters had supported Arizona's Proposition 200 -- an attempt to deny certain services to illegal immigrants -- even though it had been branded as anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic in a well-funded campaign supported by nearly the entire political and business establishment.

But many of those neighbors resented, in more visceral way, the highly personalized attacks on illegal immigrants that came from some Arizonans, including former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who is cited in today's column by Gerson. In their view, much of that criticism seemed motivated more by considerations of race that by concerns about the effects of illegal immigration.

Many Arizonans believe that Hayworth did not lose his seat in 2006 because of his opposition to illegal immigration. After all, the campaign of victorious Democrat Harry Mitchell featured an ad that charged: "The number of illegal immigrants in our state has increased 400 percent during his tenure in Congress." Those Arizonans believe Hayworth lost because he consistently seemed to be angry, volatile, and generally unpleasant to have around.

The Arizona Republic newspaper cited Hayworth's "obnoxious 'alpha male' antics." The paper quoted a former staffer who said Hayworth had morphed from "the big, boisterous guy who listens" to someone who was "just angry, angry, angry."

"Mitchell is a very likeable, grandfatherly presence who was running against just the opposite,'" another Arizonan told the Republic. "Hayworth is a very bombastic, conservative champion who can be intimidating."

Arizona's Hispanics, like the rest of us, want political leaders who come across as decent human beings, neighborly types with an aura of grace and likability. If the Republican Party can offer candidates who have those qualities, they might be surprised by the support they could receive for the position that massive immigration, whether illegal or legal, undermines the American dream for all of us.