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Line Jumping

Political opportunism on immigration

In Western Pennsylvania, at least, you can still find discussions of immigration that look like this: a panel of five white males, members of the state legislature's House Republican Policy Committee, hearing testimony from an all-white roster of speakers. All held in a corporate office park. In that noted multicultural hotbed, Cranberry Township.


The Aug. 2 hearing was the last of four held around the state. It was also the most one-sided. Among the eight groups presenting oral testimony, only two cautioned the panel against ovveraching. Both were business groups, seeking to forestall any law punishing their members for hiring illegals.

Immigrants themselves, and their advocates, were in short supply at the Aug. 2 hearing — just as they are in the region. According to U.S. Census figures, 0.7 percent of Cranberry's population is Hispanic. That's roughly half the rate found in Pittsburgh...which is still only one-tenth the size of the Hispanic community nationwide.


Immigration is so trifling here, apparently, that we have to import people to tell us to fear it. Thus, Angela "Bay" Buchanan — Pat Buchanan's freakin' sister — crossed the border of Washington, D.C., to warn that "We're losing this nation."


Also featured was Jon Dougherty, a contributor to right-wing Web sites like World Net Daily. Dougherty wrote a book, Illegals, warning about national-security threats posed by illegal immigration. As it turns out, Hispanics aren't the only kind of immigrant he distrusts. In a 2004 online column, for example, Dougherty speculated that financier George Soros — or "Hungarian-born Soros," as Doughtery called him — might intentionally engineer a financial panic to help Democrats in the 2004 election. The scheme might wreck the U.S. economy, but "that would leave Soros even richer than he is today," Dougherty wrote.


In other words, Soros — an Eastern European Jew — might manipulate financial markets to profit by stabbing his country in the back. Sound familiar?


Such theories weren't discussed at Metcalfe's panel: The bigotry du jour isn't anti-Semitism. Still, the techniques rarely change. Consider Hazelton, the eastern Pennsylvania town where anti-immigrant sentiment made national headlines. Buchanan herself touted the efforts of Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, who recently passed a local ordinance that outlaws "providing goods and services to illegal aliens." There's an exception for medical care, but not groceries. The ordinance doesn't say how grocers can tell legal immigrants from illegal ones. Maybe someday Hazelton will issue a badge for legals to wear. Like a yellow star or something.

For now, at least, state officials have more modest goals. The representative hosting the event, Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), mostly talked about punishing employers caught with illegals on their payroll — by revoking their business licenses, and preventing them from receiving government contracts.


But if you really wanted to get rid of the immigrants, you'd probably have to get rid of their employers. And no politician will let that happen.


After all, Hispanics didn't come to Hazelton because it was falling apart, says John Quigley, Hazelton's mayor in the early 1990s. Hispanics came because the town was succeeding. For decades, the area has attracted low-wage, low-skill warehouse and manufacturing jobs. Such companies "tapped out the local labor market in the 1980s, but the industries kept going," said Quigley in a recent phone interview.


The workers had to come from someplace, but resentment of Hispanic newcomers took hold early: After the 2000 Census, Quigley heard rumors that he was smuggling in immigrants from New York City at $1,000 a head. In 1995, when Quigley lost his re-election bid, "Hazelton's Hispanic population was 400 or 500 people," he says. "It's 10,000 today."


A decade of political posturing didn't stop immigration in Hazelton. It won't stop it here either. The immigrants — many legal, others not — will come. Even to Pittsburgh. Even to Cranberry.

But there's no downside to lashing out at immigrants for pols like Metcalfe — or like Barletta, who has Washington ambitions. Hispanic incomes boost local economies, while white resentments boost local vote counts. Elected officials can tout their success at attracting jobs, while persecuting those who actually take them.


Metcalfe himself seems to understand the value of immigration as a wedge issue. He spoke openly of his desire to copy the tactics of the anti-abortion movement: "I don't care what the court says; the court is wrong. Let's put forward a law; let's challenge it."


And as Buchanan put it, when they hear about Hazelton's bill, "Mayors across the country are saying, 'Get me a copy of that; let's give this a try.'"

No doubt.

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