Wednesday, January 16, 2008

GOP congressional hopefuls use immigrants for punching bag


That was the one-word introduction used by Republican congressional hopefuls Chris Lauzen and Jim Oberweis when it came to questions concerning the growing immigrant population in the Chicago area and across the United States.

The two men took each other on during a debate held Tuesday night at Aurora University, and both made it clear they were not sympathetic to the concerns of newcomers to the United States.
Illustration provided by U.S. Census Bureau

Both of the men who dream of succeeding retiring House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in Congress followed the same GOP political playbook being used elsewhere across the nation. Each tried to sound tougher than the other in promising to crack down on the growing ethnic population.

I lost count of the number of times Oberweis equated terrorism and illegal immigration as being not only the same problem, but the ultimate threat to the American Way of life.

Insofar as political rhetoric is concerned, Oberweis came off as the tougher guy of the two. Or the bigger half-wit, depending on how you perceive the ongoing debate taking place in this country these days with regards to immigration.

Both men said there are some people born in the United States whom they do not believe should have the right to regard themselves as “Estadunidenses” (it is Spanish for United Statesians and is actually more accurate, since the term “Americans” really refers to all the residents of two continents).

Lauzen said the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which defines who is a U.S. citizen, has been misinterpreted to justify giving citizenship to anyone actually born within the borders of the United States, even though anyone with sense realizes that all citizenship is nothing more than an accident of birthplace.

“It was only meant to bring an end to slavery in this country,” Lauzen said. “It (should have) nothing to do with the status of people now in this country illegally.”

Oberweis went further in being condescending to the interests of people born elsewhere and who, for reasons that sometimes are due to overly complex U.S. immigration procedures, do not have currently valid visas.

While conceding that some of the people now in the United States without current papers are doing significant work and performing important services, Oberweis said he would still prefer to have them leave the country.

“The people who are coming to this country for economic gain are among the finest people who would make up the middle class in their homelands, if given the opportunity in their own countries,” he said.

I’m willing to give Lauzen points for being more rational on this issue because he concedes the impassioned rhetoric coming from all sides is preventing anything from happening on the issue.

“We have reached a stalemate in this country between those people who favor sorts of amnesty for those in this country illegally now, and those who favor deportation measures to remove them,” he said. “We have a de-facto moratorium that is preventing the issue from being resolved.”

He realizes that some sort of rational negotiation is going to have to take place on all sides before a solution can be found. “Only after trust is restored will it be that people will listen to their government,” on immigration, Lauzen said.

Oberweis, however, wants to demagogue the issue.

During the hour-long debate, he managed to blame the immigration situation in the United States for problems with public education and healthcare, and repeatedly kept equating terrorists with immigrants, saying both were a threat to the country and went against both “basic Republican” and “basic Midwestern values.”

For the record, Lauzen takes pride in voting against a measure in the Illinois General Assembly that would have let the high school graduate children living in Illinois of parents who do not have valid visas to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges.

Or, as Lauzen prefers to think of it, “I am proud to have voted against giving a two-thirds tuition discount for those children whose parents do not follow the law.”

Oberweis, by comparison, has a laundry list of accomplishments he touts to gain favor with the social conservative element that likes to make a bigger issue out of immigration than it deserves to be.

That list includes erecting walls at the U.S./Mexico border, restricting social service program benefits, creating a special identification card that makes non-U.S.-born residents stand out more clearly, and support measures meant to make English the official language of this country.

Such a measure would be pursued even though there are parts of the southwestern U.S. where the Spanish are the founding fathers, and where in our very own Midwest, the French explorers were the first Europeans to interact with the American Indian tribes who were native to our area.

Why else would the name “Illinois” end in an “ois.” If the English had been the original European settlers, our state’s name either would have been spelled “Elinoy,” or more likely would have been named after some English place. How does the state of “New Liverpool” sound to you?

Now how could two men get away with such silly talk?

Their xenophobic chatter was allowed because they are running for a congressional seat from Illinois on the outer fringes of the Chicago area – the land where suburban sprawl has not yet completely overtaken farmland, and the actual immigrant population is confined largely to a select neighborhood or two in the town of Aurora.

Take Kendall County, which is the home of Hastert and is a focal point of the congressional district as a whole. The district has a white population of 92.1 percent (although 14.4 percent of those identified themselves as Hispanic) and only 5.3 percent born outside the United States.

It also helped that such talk was not unique to either Lauzen or Oberweis.

When I worked at the Statehouse in Springfield, political observers would describe Lauzen as being a bizarre combination of a soft-spoken, mild-mannered demeanor combined with a by-the-book conservative view of the world.

As one pundit (not me, I’m not clever enough to have come up with the line) put it, “he’s Mr. Rogers joining the John Birch Society.”

As for Oberweis, we expect him to put his foot in his mouth on an issue or two every campaign he runs.

The owner of a suburban Chicago dairy and chain of ice cream parlors used his personal wealth to fund unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004. He also tried to become Illinois governor in 2006.

He is the candidate who once equated Christian religious extremists with the terrorists who cite Muslim faith as justification for their violent actions, and will always be remembered in political circles for the campaign television ad showing him flying over Chicago’s Soldier Field while noting that the estimated number of people who slip across the U.S./Mexico border would equal a capacity crowd for a Chicago Bears game played every single day.

Yet this time, Oberweis could very well be the favorite. Hastert privately has said he would prefer the dairy owner to succeed him instead of Lauzen, a state senator since 1993 whose political rigidity has offended his GOP colleagues on occasions when a more compromising personality would have been easier to deal with.

Democrats in the Illinois 14th congressional district are such a weak organization that it is unlikely their candidate can mount a serious challenge.

Democrats are banking their chances of victory on Barack Obama becoming their party’s presidential nominee, believing that the U.S. senator from Illinois would boost the Democratic vote across the board and could just make their candidate competitive.

So perhaps that is a reason for conservatives in the Illinois 14th to root for Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Her presence on the ballot just about clinches a GOP victory for the congressional seat come the Nov. 4 elections.


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