It didn't take long for ugly ghosts of the past to rear their heads in the immigration debate. They came roaring out from the back of the right-wing cave last week when the Heritage Foundation published an attack on immigration reform cobbled together by a character whose academic record includes some extreme (and extremely dubious) notions about the intelligence of Hispanics. Now, conservatives are being forced off the sidelines: They can either stand with promoters of inflammatory tracts -- like the Heritage Foundation and their hack Jason Richwine, who resigned in disgrace on Friday -- or they can stand with Americans in both parties who are working to fix our broken immigration system.
There had been earlier signs of bigotry in the immigration debate, but the GOP establishment pushed hard to keep the promoters in check. For example, when Rep. Don Young (R-AK) referred to migrant workers as "wetbacks," Speaker of the House John Boehner demanded an apology. "Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds," Boehner said. "I don't care why he said it -- there's no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology."
Boehner's quick reaction revealed the fear that wingnut opponents of comprehensive immigration might brand the whole party. He had good reasons to be concerned, both moral and political. Boehner knows that public expressions of bigotry have no legitimate place in the debate. But he also knows the trends confirmed in exit polls last November: As the percentage of the white vote drops, support for the Republican Party drops with it.
Some powerful forces and politicians, however, don't seem to have to gotten the memo to discard antiquated attitudes and ideas. Some seek false solutions like "self-deportation." Others, like the Heritage Foundation, have doubled down on the immigration issue by trying to drive a wedge between Americans.
The Heritage Foundation is an influential organization. It has long served as the brain-trust for GOP presidents (George W. Bush, in fact, put Heritage players like Elaine Chao and Gale Norton into his cabinet). "For those of you new to all this," Rush Limbaugh has told his followers, "The Heritage Foundation is America's leading conservative think tank."
But "thinking" apparently wasn't a priority when Heritage put its stamp of approval on a noxious "study" falsely claiming that immigration reform will cost taxpayers more than $6 trillion. That diatribe was co-written by Jason Richwine, the Foundation's senior policy analyst until he resigned suddenly last week.
We know now that Richwine has exhibited troubling views on race since his years as a graduate student at Harvard. His doctoral dissertation, entitled "IQ and Immigration Policy," slammed "the underclass behavior" of immigrants and argued that the "average IQ of immigrants in the United States is substantially lower than that of the white native population, and the difference is likely to persist over several generations."
AFSCME members and other public service workers across the country have also been the targets of Richwine's noxious notions. In the past few years, he has regularly taken to the op-ed page of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal to blame public service workers for the fall-out from the Great Recession. At a time of unprecedented income inequality (with the top 2 percent getting 80 percent of the wealth), he's disparaged teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public employees as underworked and overpaid. He's an ideological extremist who's all too willing to play fast and loose with the facts in order to advance his distorted view of the world.
According to the Washington Post, Richwine thinks some races are distinctly less intelligent than others. "No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against," Richwine wrote in his doctoral thesis, with the kind of arrogance that Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond would have shared. Toxic garbage, pure and simple.
Unfortunately, Heritage and Richwine aren't alone. Rep. Steve King (R-IA), for example, says the U.S. has to be careful about selecting which immigrants are allowed to stay in the country. He compares it to selecting a dog to use on hunting trips. When his comparison of immigrants to bird dogs raised hackles, King insisted he was being complimentary as a compliment. Sadly, his comments don't seem to be hurting him with his right-wing base.
Conservatives are going to have to decide if they will stand with people in both parties working to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or if they will join those mired in the narrow-mindedness of the past. Only one side is working to keep us moving forward together.