Since his ignominious departure from the U.S. Senate, the name of Nevada’s John Ensign has seldom appeared in political news coverage. Republicans, after all, wanted to forget him and he didn’t cut enough of a figure in Congress for Democrats to keep his memory alive for their own propaganda purposes.
So it was a surprise to hear that one of his measures is an issue in an Arkansas U.S. Senate race this year. In that state, a Republican ad claimed that Democratic candidate Mark Pryor “voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.”
This claim originated with a 2006 Ensign amendment that sought to prevent illegal immigrants who achieved citizenship from collecting social security benefits they earned. At the time, Ensign said of the amendment, “People who broke the law to come here and broke the law to work here can benefit from their conduct to collect Social Security.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy responded that the amendment covered people who had become citizens, telling the senate that “everyone this amendment would affect will be legal residents under the terms of the bill. Those are the hard-working men and women this amendment seeks to penalize.”
Ever since, the GOP has used votes against the amendment against Democrats who opposed it and fact checkers of various types keep pointing out that the votes cast for the measure would have stripped social security benefits from U.S. citizens. In Pryor’s case, FactCheck.org found, “Actually, what Pryor voted for wouldn’t have paid a penny to any immigrant while here illegally.”
Immigration issues like this keep tripping up the Republicans. When Ronald Reagan was president, he kept talking about how the GOP could make inroads into the Latino vote. “Hispanics are already Republican,” Reagan told someone. “They just don’t know it.”
Reagan had some success, drawing 44 percent of the Latino vote in his 1984 re-election. But he could not control other Republicans, who, while wanting to cut into the Latino vote, could not resist the temptation to demagogue immigration. In 1994, Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson championed a punitive anti-alien ballot measure, Proposition 187, which became a national issue. Republicans always tell themselves that rank and file legal Latino voters don’t care about illegal aliens, but across the United States they turned out that year to vote against Republicans. (And in California, only one Republican since 1994 has won a governor, U.S. Senate, or presidential race in the state.)
Here in Nevada, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has an undated policy statement on the issue that apparently represents his ongoing position. Among other things, it reads, “I support greater border security and the construction of a fence to help secure our borders.”
The problem with this stance, repeated by innumerable Republicans around the nation, is that it has already been accomplished. As columnist Gail Collins wrote last week, “Right now the United States spends more on border security than on all the rest of its criminal law enforcement agencies combined. Under President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has constructed nearly 650 miles of fences. The number of border patrol agents has doubled to more than 20,000. They patrol every mile of the border every day, aided by 10 drones. When candidates announce they want to beef up border security, how much more do you think they want to spend? Should there be an agent every 500 feet? A line of officers holding hands from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico?”
Democrats don’t make that case effectively the way Collins does, but what is worse is that Republicans don’t show leadership on the issue. For instance, here in Nevada U.S. House members Mark Amodei and Joe Heck, both Republicans, have taken relatively humane stances on immigration issues.
But to protect themselves politically, they still wield punitive rhetoric about border security and other issues that does not match their policy positions. Neither does it educate the public on what HAS been done, as Collins does, which might reduce the temperature of public debate. Heck, for instance, doesn’t really support more spending on fences and such border security hardware. But he does nothing to inform the public about how much has been done to secure the border and instead keeps TALKING about the need for more border security.
Like so many Republicans, they want to have it both ways — keep white voters alarmed with words while trying to win Latino voters with relatively moderate votes.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.