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Why the Anti-immigrant Dog Did Not Bark in Illinois

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In the Sherlock Holmes short story "Silver Blaze" the famous detective focuses his analytic prowess on the "curious incident" of the dog that did not bark in the nighttime.

In the recent mid-term elections there was a similar "curious incident" in Illinois that is important nationally. No major candidate in Illinois from either the Republican or Democratic Party demagogued the immigration issue. Neither the ultra-conservative Republican candidate for Governor, Bill Brady, nor the supposedly "moderate" candidate for Senate, Mark Kirk, ran ads, did mailers, or used talking points about the supposed scourge of illegal immigrants taking jobs or sponging up our tax money. Nor did any major candidate for Congress.

It is definitely true that a number of the Republican candidates that were elected to Congressional seats hold anti-immigrant positions. But they did not choose to use those positions as wedge issues in the recent election. Why not?

A possible explanation is that Republicans in Illinois are a kinder, more reasonable group than Republicans elsewhere. That, I'm afraid, does not pass the laugh test.

You could argue that it's because Illinois has a large immigrant population in general and a large Latino population in particular. But so do Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and California where Republican Party candidates tried to use "illegal immigration" and "amnesty" as wedge issues to galvanize their base.

It is true that Illinois has a more immigrant-friendly tradition than some of the states in the Southwest. Much of the Caucasian population in Illinois comes from recent immigrant stock themselves - from Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Germany, Croatia and Serbia.

But there is also a more old-fashioned reason. Demagogues and bullies tend to prey upon those whom they consider too weak to strike back. It turned out that in Nevada, California, and Colorado they made the wrong call, since their demagoguery galvanized turnout among Latino voters that defeated right-wing candidates for the Senate.

In fact, the Latino vote saved the Senate for the Democrats.

But in Illinois the right didn't even try their demagogic tactics. That's largely because the immigrant communities in Illinois have worked hard over five election cycles to build a muscular political organizing vehicle that gets out the immigrant vote -- and can bite back fiercely at anti-immigrant demagogues.

In 2008, Jim Oberweis ran for Congress against Democrat Bill Foster on a heavily anti-immigrant platform and was flattened by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. That experience sent a lesson through Illinois' right-wing political class. Nothing like watching one of their own get scalded to teach others not to touch the stove.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) no leads The New Americans' Democracy Project . This year, 13 electoral organizers worked for months in both the City of Chicago and the Suburbs. They targeted 133,128 infrequent immigrant voters for a multi-contact phone and door operation, and before the election was done the volunteers they recruited did a total of 549,000 live phone calls to their universe of Latino, Asian and Muslim voters.

This work has been growing in scale and bite since 2002 when it began with no funding and in only nine precincts. At this point the immigrant vote can no longer be ignored by either party. Here are several key lessons from the Illinois immigrant organizing experience:

1) Consistency Counts: ICIRR has had between 10 and 20 full-time immigrant election campaign organizers every election since 2004. They begin their work in July and work through November, building a "recent immigrant" field operation. In every single cycle they add new skills to their electoral organizing.

2) Numbers Count: The immigrant voter program has registered over 90,000 new immigrant voters. They door-knock between 35,000 and 60,000 doors every election cycle.

3) Diversity is Strength: The Democracy Project works with leaders and organizations in Latino community, but also the Asian, Arab, and Polish immigrant communities.

4) Mine the "Base" and work the "Swings": The electoral work is done in the immigrant "base" Chicago port of entry neighborhoods to generate numbers, but also in swing suburban political districts where multi-ethnic immigrant organizing multiplies the voting power of Latinos. The activation of new immigrant voters in suburban "swing" communities forces Republican attention to immigrant issues.

5) Reward Friends, Punish Enemies: ICIRR keeps track of who engages in immigrant bashing -- and stikes back. When Republican anti-immigrant candidate Jim Oberweis polarized voters against "illegal immigrants", ICIRR released to the media a film of undocumented immigrants cleaning his business while being paid only $3.23 an hour. When old-school Democratic Mayor of Waukegan, IL attacked "illegals" with local law enforcement of immigration laws, he went down to defeat in the next election because Latinos in Waukegan mobilized to support his opponent.

6) Naturalize, Naturalize, Naturalize: ICIRR has one of the most aggressive citizenship programs in the nation. All told, an additional 170,000 immigrants were naturalized in Illinois over the last five years. The coalition itself directly assisted over 48,000 of those legal immigrants to become citizens, and thus voters.

ICIRR is not a partisan organization. In fact, their most recent fundraiser was headlined by the popular former Republican Governor Jim Edgar. But because of the track record of Republicans across the country, its organizing definitely benefits Democrats. In fact, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn - who won by fewer than 20,000 votes -- would not likely have been re-elected had it not been for their work.
On the policy side, ICIRR works for immigrant-friendly policies, and by any definition they have succeeded in winning some of the most immigrant-friendly policies in the nation at the state level in Illinois.

The state of Illinois leans Blue, but it has wide swatches of Red. In the recent elections the Democrats barely lost the Senate race and took some terrible losses in the Congressional delegation. But in addition to electing a Democratic Governor, both the State House and Senate remained in Democratic hands. The immigrant vote was critical to these Democratic victories, but it is also a force that Republicans ignore or abuse at their peril. In this election, at least, Illinois Republicans generally had the good sense not to bait the immigrant community.

In the current environment of racialized fear and polarization against immigrants across the U.S., the hard work of immigrant advocates in Illinois provides two key lessons:

  • Demagogues go after the weak, not the strong. You don't stop anti-immigrant demagoguery through accommodation, you stop it with strength.
  • Nuts and Bolts Organizing works.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.