Fineman: An Explosive Issue in Iowa

The flow of the presidential campaign has taken me to Iowa a good bit lately, and here is the chief thing I learned: the immigration issue is a roadside IED there, and all politicians, Republicans in particular, had better up-armor—fast.

Over five days on two trips I asked campaign managers and voters from both parties to list the most urgent matters on the minds of Iowans—not just folks in their party or "likely caucus attenders." Iraq was number one, of course, for everyone. To my surprise, concern about immigration was tied for number two with health care.

If you live in Iowa—a state that is only now seeing a major influx of immigrants, most of them from Mexico—it's no surprise. Though the numbers are relatively small, the story is becoming an urgent one. Unlike in other agricultural states, immigrant labor—legal and otherwise—isn't a matter of farmhands in fields but rather workers in packing plants. Those workers are needed, but they are not all in Iowa legally. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement are showing a more urgent interest in the papers of people working in plants and have made arrests in recent raids.

Mexican immigrants have yet to overwhelm schools and social services, as they have in other states with large rural populations. In Iowa, however, a new and potentially explosive phenomenon is surfacing: a link between illegal immigration and crime. Earlier this month, 22 people—17 of them immigrants illegally in the United States—were arrested on federal drug-trafficking and weapons charges after a bust in Des Moines. The Des Moines Register quoted officials describing a "massive drug ring." All 17 of the illegals were from Mexico, and all 22 were accused of distributing and selling methamphetamine—much of which may have been made in and imported from Mexico.

I can see where this is headed: a competition among Republican candidates, as they campaign in Iowa, to see who can propose the toughest crackdown on illegals. And that, in turn, could put at risk, if not ruin, whatever chances the ultimate GOP nominee has of winning swing states in the Southwest that have large Hispanic populations.

It's a slippery slope in rural Iowa, as elsewhere, from championing tough measures against illegals to seeming to criticize Hispanics and Hispanic culture. "Iowans are genuinely and rightly concerned about illegal immigration," said Gentry Collins, a thoughtful conservative who is a top Iowa staffer for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, adding that "you have to be careful about how you approach the issue."

The GOP's Iowa predicament mirrors a similar one among Democrats on a different topic. As they appeal to the state's deep antiwar sentiment, the Democratic candidates risk seeming to oppose, or at least not fully appreciate, the power and prestige of the American military culture—an image that could hurt their chances with Red State white males down the road.

The Democrats' strategy in Iowa, so far, has been to ignore the immigration issue altogether. In back-to-back speeches at Sen. Tom Harkin's Steak Fry last week in Indianola, the party's six leading contenders rarely uttered the word, and no one dwelled on the topic. I'm not sure they can keep looking the other way, however—especially in rural western Iowa. There are lots of caucus voters there, and the local congressman, Steve King, has emerged as a champion of legislation to make English the official language of the United States. It's a symbolic measure no Democrat supports, but it gives you an idea of the territory they are working in.

As the horse race heats up, it will be tempting for one or more of the GOP contenders to take a particularly hard line, in part because there is some running room for them to do so. (Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo already has, but he has not managed to make it into the top tier.) Sen. John McCain is committed to President George W. Bush's middle-of-the-road approach, which includes a "path to citizenship" for millions of illegals. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani isn't eager to run hard on the issue, given his history of pragmatic toleration; his "issues" page on his Web site lists 10 topics; immigration is not one of them. Romney, who is attacking Giuliani on the issue, has a mixed record: as governor he sometimes looked the other way too. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has expressed concern that the rhetoric on immigration might get too heated—and xenophobic—in his party.

That leaves the six-foot-six-inch newbie, former senator Fred Thompson, as the major player who might take the lead in moving this issue. He seems temperamentally disposed to do so: if plain talk is his calling card, this might be his issue. He has criticized so-called "sanctuary cities"—a jab at Giuliani, primarily—and has talked of a legal requirement that immigrants learn English as a condition of citizenship. He talks tough about securing the borders and "enforcing immigration laws." His public persona, as developed in congressional hearings, on TV and in the movies, is of a slow-to-anger but implacable country sheriff turned city prosecutor.

Does he become the immigration cop? Not quite, says one adviser, speaking on background to avoid the usual vetting by the campaign hierarchy. "This isn't just a border and law-enforcement issue; it is reaching into family life. Voters are concerned about what is or may happen to their schools, to their local hospitals, to their neighborhoods. Fred has to speak to that, and he will."

But there are risks, for Fred or anyone else. "I have never seen an issue where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself," wrote former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson. As Gerson knows, politicians live in the short term—and, from now through early January, another name for "short term" is Iowa.