Steve King’s radical anti-immigrant rhetoric hurts the Republican Party

A new conservative dialogue on immigration reform is emerging, but Colorado Republicans are opting out of the conversation.

Former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman told columnist Reuben Navarrette, Jr. in a recent interview, “the GOP has it all wrong on immigration — or at least has the language wrong.”

“My view is that the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful,” Whitman said. “We, as a party, are going to have to make some changes, about how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.”

Restore civility to the debate on illegal immigration, Whitman advises, and don’t demonize illegals who come here to work.

State Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, is a good case in point for Whitman’s criticism.

Dismissing as “amnesty” the recently enacted Utah Compact to grant illegal residents state work permits, King compared immigrant workers to stray cats, a nuisance that might go away if we don’t feed them.

“Anything that smacks of amnesty” for illegals, he told The Daily Sentinel, “is like giving milk to a stray cat. It will never go away, and it will encourage even more to show up on the doorstep.”

With that witless comment, King insults the dignity of a hard-working class of people who contribute more to the U.S. economy in taxes than they take from it in services, according to many economists.

It is this kind of insulting and dehumanizing language that Whitman wants Republicans to change.

As Navarrette, put it, “Republicans can’t seem to talk about the immigration issue in a candid and honest way that eschews racism, acknowledges labor needs and holds everyone accountable. The message is bad, and the tone is worse.”

Though Navarrette addresses potential presidential candidates, the rhetorical racism he condemns reaches down to the base of the party.

Steve King’s comments are an excellent example of the Republican immigration problem. He recognizes that there is a need for illegal labor, but wants to criminalize those who respond to the need for workers.

“I get the part that we have jobs in Colorado of picking peaches or pulling the corn and that there’s a market there,” he admits. But anything that recognizes the workers who fill those jobs, he condemns as amnesty.

King instead plaintively wishes “we could go back 30 years when we had a functional program.” That would be just before President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to three million unauthorized immigrants in 1986, and set the stage for today’s immigration stalemate.

When the debate on immigration bogged down again in 2007, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Jagdish N. Bhagwati proposed “once passions ... have cooled, Americans should be ready to see that a way must be found to treat illegals with the decency and respect that humanity requires, while respecting equally the innate American sense that laws matter.”

Utah made that choice by passing a bill allowing illegal workers to emerge from the shadows, pay fines for past violations and obtain papers enabling them to join the legal workforce.

The Utah Compact still holds the federal government responsible for reform, decrees that local law enforcement should target criminal behavior over immigration violations and says that immigration policies should not separate families.

The law is meant to provide a national model for state-initiated reform that recognizes the economic contributions of illegal workers, and their right to be treated humanely.

Utah legislators believe if other states adopt a version of the compact, it will do more than the contentious Arizona law to force Congress to address the need for immigration reform.

As other states, including ultra-conservative Texas, contemplate similar laws, intractable Colorado Republicans become more isolated from the changing tone of the national debate. If Colorado Republicans want a voice in that discussion, they should curtail what Navarrette calls “the racism and nativism that poison this debate and threaten to make the Republican Party obsolete before the end of the century.”

Putting a muzzle on King and other elected Republicans whose reactionary rhetoric contributes nothing to solving the immigration problem would be a good beginning to a new civil dialogue in Colorado.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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