Nativism run amok

Immigrant bashing will only hurt Republicans long term

Watching Republican gubernatorial candidates Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman trying to lay the blame for California’s financial woes on illegal immigrants would be simply ironic if it weren’t so ugly. Ironic because in the past it’s served mainly to drive Latino voters into the Democratic camp. Ugly because it is yet another example of a particularly virulent strain of nativist animosity that has befouled the public discourse for more than a century.

The very things that Whitman and, especially, Poizner are saying about today’s immigrants—that they’re freeloaders on the system; that they take jobs from good Americans; that they fill our jails and prisons with criminals—were said about the millions of Italians, Slavs, Chinese, Irish and Germans who arrived in this country in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries—including Poizner’s own Ukrainian Jewish ancestors.

We vilify these immigrants, and yet we need them to work our fields, wash dishes in our restaurants and clean our hotel rooms. And when their children become educated and join the mainstream, we look for other groups of immigrants to vilify.

This is not to say that we don’t need comprehensive immigration reform. We do. We all can agree that the federal government has failed miserably to create a consistent and workable immigration policy.

But the candidates’ immigrant bashing is the worst kind of xenophobic demagoguery. And basing a statewide political campaign on anti-immigrant hysteria, at a time when Latinos are the largest minority group in the state and voting in steadily increasing numbers, is risky political business indeed.