Immigration debate cries out for courageous leadership in lieu of demagoguery

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- When he announced his campaign for the U.S. Congress, Georgia state Sen. Jim Whitehead said he was running for the seat left vacant by the February death of Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood. But Mr. Whitehead sounds as though he's running to replace Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the notorious Wisconsin Republican whose commie-baiting smear tactics ruined lives and finally shamed his colleagues.

Mr. Whitehead has aimed his demagoguery squarely at illegal immigrants in a campaign designed to whip up the worst instincts and impulses of his constituents. No lie is too shameful to be left unspoken.


Proclaiming "immigration is the No. 1 issue" in the 10th Congressional District, Mr. Whitehead contends that "left-wing political activists [are] intentionally registering illegal aliens to vote, including known al-Qaida terrorists," according to Georgia political writer Tom Crawford.

Wow. That is so outrageous it's hard to know where to begin pointing out the fallacies, but let's start with an obvious one: Since when do jihadists strike at us by voting?


Mr. Whitehead may be among the worst of the politicians playing to the jingoists, but he is by no means the only one. Recently, well-known nativist Pat Buchanan unleashed an ugly tirade in response to the atrocity at Virginia Tech, although Seung-Hui Cho and his law-abiding parents came to this country legally. "Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that [Mr. Cho] was not an American at all, but an immigrant, an alien," he said. Mr. Buchanan went on to denounce the immigration statutes as policies that "threw the nation's doors open to the greatest invasion in history, an invasion opposed by a majority of our people."

Actually, Mr. Cho's killing spree proved he was too much the American. (See University of Texas and Columbine.) South Korean campuses are not known for gun-toting madmen.

Democrats, meanwhile, have tended to propose thoughtful and rational immigration policies - when they've dared to propose anything. Lately, though, many leading Democrats have been frightened into silence or, worse, backpedaling to escape the finger-pointing of those who disparage as "amnesty" any attempts to legalize those illegal immigrants already here.

Immigration is an issue desperate for courageous leadership, and it is suited to President Bush's best instincts. A Texas upbringing engendered close relationships with many Latinos; that voting bloc supported him heavily when he ran for governor. He also understands that the future of the GOP depends on its ability to open itself to diversity.

Beyond politics, there is a sound policy reason to support a rational immigration plan that allows those illegal immigrants already here to start on a path toward citizenship: We need their labor. There are simply some jobs - such as care for the elderly - for which there are too few available Americans willing to work at a rational price.

Immigrant labor is required in a host of other jobs, from factories to construction sites. The American population is getting older, and we're not having enough children to replace our labor pool. We need younger workers to replenish the economy and pay for our Social Security checks.

But it takes strong leadership to prevail against a nativist element that plays to common fears and base prejudices. Mr. Bush, mortally wounded by his foolish war, has no political capital left to spend within his own party.

That leaves opportunists such as Mr. Whitehead free to conflate Mexican landscapers with Middle Eastern terrorists. His tactics are reminiscent not just of Senator McCarthy but also of segregationist governors. Their time eventually ended, but not before considerable damage had been done.


Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is