It Came From Beyond The Beltway

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Despite the inability of a deeply-split Congress to pass any kind of immigration bill before heading off for their Easter recess, the surprisingly large and widespread turnouts of marchers around the country – largely Hispanic – are keeping this issue very much alive.

That’s making a lot of politicians nervous, and for good reason. Unlike most issues dealt with in Washington, this one isn’t being carefully stage-managed solely by the usual inside-the-Beltway operatives: lobbyists, PR companies, and money men. In fact, looked at through the lens of money in politics, the immigration issue is almost invisible.

A search of the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website shows eight PACs with “immigration” in their names:

Americans Against Illegal ImmigrationAmericans for Legal Immigration

Equitable Immigration

Immigration PAC

Michigan Immigration PAC

Pro-Immigration PAC

United States Immigration PAC

US Immigration Reform PAC

Congressman Tom Tancredo’s (R-CA) Team America PAC is actually the biggest player in the field. They’ve already raised more than half a million dollars in the current election cycle – nearly as much as all the others combined. Still, this is pretty small potatoes by Washington standards – less than $1.4 million in contributions since the 2000 election cycle. Dentists, for instance, raised nearly $20 million over the same period.

The biggest hitters with an interest in immigration are business groups – meat packers, restaurants, farm groups and the like – that employ large numbers of immigrants and would like to see them legal. Likewise, the issue is hot among some labor unions, especially the Service Employees International Union. But all those groups also have dozens of other items on their agenda besides immigration.

All of which makes this issue a fascinating case study for Washington watchers. For once we can’t predict the outcome of a congressional battle simply by checking the campaign and lobby expenditures of both sides. This one’s a true wild card with the two things that DC politicos dread the most: a highly visible, contentious issue that requires them to take a stand one way or the other.

When I took off last spring on a 50-day road trip across US Route 50 to find out what voters were thinking in the wake of the 2004 elections, not a single one of the 55 questions on my questionnaire was about immigration. Yet it came up spontaneously almost everywhere I went – usually when I got to the question about what are the biggest problems facing the country today.

That was especially true in small towns that had meat packing plants nearby. In places like Garden City, Kansas – where one of this week’s marches took place – the flood of immigrants is seen by most of the old-time residents as nothing less than an invasion.

Before Spanish-speaking immigrants started showing up to take the tough and sometimes dangerous low-paying jobs that locals used to do, everybody here spoke English. Most people were more or less in the same boat, or at least felt themselves to be. Now there’s a new language on the streets, new foods in the supermarkets, even new radio stations on the air. The newcomers are speaking Spanish in patches of the country where even English, spoken in the wrong accent, used to be suspect. Add to that the fact that these newcomers put enormous burdens on local school districts, hospitals and social services, and you have the makings of a cultural powder keg.

Helen Trahern, who I met at the Farm Bureau office in Cimarron, Kansas, summed up the views that were typical of her neighbors:

I have no problem with them doing the work. My problem is, if they’re not legal I don’t want to pay for their schooling, their taxes, their medical bills, their everything…. I want them to have to abide by everything we have to abide by. I don’t want to be paying for them and not taking care of our own.

While Helen was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I heard almost exactly the same words from Democrats as well who lived in the small towns along Route 50 where the immigrants have arrived en masse.

Washington is full of hot potato issues that members of Congress would rather shunt aside than face full-on. On this one, however, the political insiders are not in control, and the issue shows no signs whatever of leaving center stage.

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