At last week's heavily attended town hall meeting on health care reform in Arlington Heights Congressman Mark Kirk continued to propagate what Newsweek just called one of "The Five Biggest Lies in the Health Care Debate": that proposed reforms will provide health insurance to illegal immigrants.
Kirk questioned even the notion that reform is necessary, claiming that few of the estimated 50 million uninsured in the U.S. are needy U.S. citizens. He then thundered to the applauding crowd, "Should we provide taxpayer health care for people who are illegally here in the U. S.? I do not think we should provide federally-subsidized health care to illegal aliens." No matter that the House version of reform explicitly excludes "individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States".
Outright anti-immigrant demagoguery reminiscent of the failed campaigns of Republican perennial candidate Jim Oberweis is surprising, perhaps even shocking, from Congressman Kirk. Kirk has carefully crafted a national image for himself as a thoughtful moderate on issues ranging from the environment to ethics to a women's right to choose. But it turns out that Kirk has an intemperate mean streak when it comes to those immigrant groups he believes he can bully. This racial blind spot may well cost Congressman Kirk the U.S. Senate seat which Barack Obama once held and that he hopes to steal from the Democrats in 2010.
Arabs and Mexicans have been Kirk's favorite targets. Perhaps he judged that harsh rhetoric directed at these groups in fact helps him with the substantial Jewish vote and in buttressing his conservative flank in his 10th Congressional District in Chicago's Northern suburbs. "I'm ok with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist producing states" Kirk said before a crowd of Northwestern students in 2005. "I'm not threatened by people from China," Kirk continued. "I'm not even threatened by people from Mexico. I just know where the threat is from." As you might guess, Arab and Muslim groups were appalled that a sitting Congressman supports blanket discrimination based on racial profiling. I heard no complaints from Chinese immigrants, but Mexican immigrants were not reassured that Kirk is "not even" threatened by them.
Mexican Americans have their own complaints, however. It wasn't enough that in 2005 Kirk voted for the offensive Sensenbrenner bill that would have criminalized all undocumented immigrants, as well as the priests, nuns, doctors, teachers, and even family members who assisted them. Kirk continued to beat the "immigrants are criminals" drum when he sponsored the scarily named "Alien Gang Removal Act", although current law already provides for the deportation of immigrant criminals!
But most offensive to Mexican Americans was his suggestion on the floor of Congress in 2007 that birth control is the answer for too many illegal Mexicans! While awkwardly trying to make a conservative argument in support of funding family planning in the third world, Kirk stated, "family planning would... lower the rate of growth of Mexico's population [and] reduce long term illegal immigration pressure on America's borders." Naturally Mexican Americans found Kirk's intimation that there is nothing about the problem of too many Mexicans that condoms cannot solve to be a poor substitute for serious solutions for our broken immigration laws. And just last week Congressman Kirk snubbed the first ever pan-Asian forum on immigration reform attended by both Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Senator Roland Burris.
If Kirk were to continue to wish to represent only the toney North Shore, then perhaps picking on Mexicans and Arabs would not be a political problem (although Democrats have been competitive in that district for the last two election cycles).
But now Congressman Kirk aspires to be a Senator representing all of Illinois. The last Republican to win a Statewide race for Senate was Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, who defeated incumbent Senator Carol Mosley Braun with only 50.3% of the vote. Fitzgerald's vote margin over Braun and two minor candidates was 99,000 votes.
So just how important are the Latino and Asian vote in Illinois 12 years later? Of the over 8 million voters registered in 2007 some 556,000 of them were Latino, 136,000 Asians, and 43,000 were Middle Eastern. This total of 735,000 voters now represents 9.1% of the electorate (with African Americans representing another 13% of the voters).
And it turns out that the Latino and Asian voters who know Kirk the best, those of his home 10th Congressional District, just do not like him all that much. Exit polls taken during the past election showed that Kirk got only one of five Latino votes and two in five Asian votes.
So Congressman Kirk's giant racial blind spot with immigrant voters may be the cause of his political death a year from now. Or perhaps the canny Kirk will tone down the immigrant bashing and evolve his position towards a more compassionate, solutions-oriented approach that dulls Latino, Arab, and Asian anger towards him.
I will guarantee one thing though - rhetorical cheap shots on "illegal aliens" and health care is not a good place to start!