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.
Tomorrow, for example, Mr. Dole will step up his pursuit of conservative support with a major speech on "American values" to an American Legion convention. In it, the Senate majority leader will propose making English the nation's official language. Similar laws, which are largely symbolic, have been passed by a number of state legislatures, including Maryland's last year. (It was vetoed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.)
Mr. Dole also agreed recently to change the welfare reform bill, which the Senate is to take up again Wednesday, to limit the eligibility of legal immigrants for many social services.
Mr. Gramm and other conservatives had demanded the change, which brings the measure closer to one approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year.
Mr. Wilson, whose support of Proposition 187 helped turn around his re-election campaign last year, claims to be "the first leader in America to have the courage to stand up against illegal immigration," in campaign commercials, now airing in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The ads include fuzzy black-and-white video of illegal Mexican aliens running across the U.S. border.
While the major Republican candidates are talking tough about immigration, none can out-tough conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who has taken the most extreme positions on the issue. Among his proposals: building a fence along the U.S-Mexico border and using the National Guard, if necessary, to keep illegal aliens out.
Mr. Buchanan floated similar ideas in the 1992 GOP primaries and drew widespread criticism. But after his defeat, immigration faded as a campaign topic, something that seems less likely to happen in 1996.
President Clinton, who must carry California, aides say, if he is to win re-election, has so far remained relatively quiet on the subject.
U.S. 'rightly disturbed'
In his State of the Union speech in January, he said that Americans were "rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country" and that more needed to be done to stop the abuse of immigration laws.
Several leading Republican conservatives are openly critical of the drive to crack down on illegal immigrants, including former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who opposed Proposition 187 because they feared it would touch off a backlash against legal immigrants and hurt efforts to draw Hispanic voters into the Republican Party.
Grover Norquist, a conservative activist, calls it "un-American to bash immigrants, and it's not politically smart."
The current debate is leaving Republicans open to charges of intolerance "from the left, which will say you are bashing Hispanics," he said.
Recently, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a GOP moderate, warned that efforts by Republicans in Congress to restrict immigration would have "catastrophic social effects" in New York and other big cities.
Calling the focus on immigrants a deliberate attempt to play on some Americans' irrational fears of foreigners, the mayor said that thousands of immigrant children could be driven onto the streets if public schools were required to search for and report illegal alien families to authorities.
A fear among recent immigrants that anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise has been cited as one of the reasons for an unprecedented surge in citizenship applications.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service announced a new program last week designed to reduce a backlog of almost 600,000 people waiting to be sworn in as new U.S. citizens.
Many legal immigrants are afraid they will suffer discrimination if they do not become citizens quickly, according to immigration activists.
Foreign-born U.S. residents who are legal immigrants can become citizens after 2 1/2 years but currently must wait an additional year to have their applications processed because of the backlog.