There is no doubt that GOP presidential nominee John McCain's greatest weakness among conservative voters was his support for amnesty for illegal aliens. Despite his claims that his campaign imploded because of his support for the surge in Iraq—"I'd rather lose an election than lose a war" —the real reason (as Slate's Mickey Kaus has pointed out) was his support for amnesty.
Apart from Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Sam Brownback, every single Republican candidate supported the surge. But apart from John McCain, every single Republican candidate opposed his amnesty. But, due to the staggeringly short memory of Republican voters, McCain was able to reinvent himself as a semi-restrictionist who would "Secure the Border First," and somehow managed to win the nomination.
Conventional wisdom was that if McCain chose a VP to appeal to the conservative base, it would be someone who had a record of (or at least perceived as) being tough on illegal immigration. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty were the two frontrunners. McCain's surprise choice of Gov. Sarah Palin has more than energized the conservative base. But should her record make Americans less concerned with McCain's position on amnesty?
The conservative response to Palin makes me think of the late country singer Keith Whitley's song, "You say it best, when you say nothing at all." Palin has barely said a word or done a thing on immigration. But many immigration patriots assume she's a restrictionist. After all, why would a moose hunting hockey mom and bane of the liberal elite support amnesty?
Most explain away Palin's inaction and silence by arguing that immigration isn't an issue in Alaska. But a closer examination shows that this justification is very thin. While illegal immigration is not as bad as in the rest of the country, there are an estimated 40,000 Hispanics in the state, making up nearly 6% of the population. And over 5% of the population are Asian or Pacific Islander (this is not including Eskimos.) As of 2000, 6% of the population were immigrants and over 14% spoke a language other than English at home—and that number has no doubt gone up.
The Mexican Government is opening a consulate in Anchorage. There is nothing wrong with consular offices per se, but the it's a safe bet that the Anchorage one's main concern is not the well being of Mexican tourists looking to go hiking in Denali. Mexican consulates have a very a strong tendency to interfere with American immigration policy. At the very least the mere fact that one exists is ample evidence in and of itself that immigration is an issue in Alaska. But we haven't heard a peep from Palin about this.
However, immigration is also enough of an issue that Palin felt compelled to pander to minority immigrants and promise them government goodies. When running for governor in 2006, she replied to the Anchorage Daily News' question,
"The state has seen big growth of minority and immigrant populations, specifically Latinos, Southeast Asians, Asians and Pacific Islanders. What sort of outreach has your campaign done in these communities, and what have you learned about what these communities' specific needs?"
"I have reached out to all these communities and asked them to identify their needs. Their response has been for more vocational training, senior assistance, ending gang violence, and more state outreach and communication with their communities. One of the key components of my internal campaign is a diversity task force. I turn to them often."[Where they stand, October 22, 2006]
Alaska also has three sanctuary cities—Sitka, Fairbanks, and Anchorage. In 2003 the state legislature passed a resolution that forbade the use of funds for immigration enforcement, making it one of only three Sanctuary States. Sanctuary cities have become a huge part of the immigration debate to the point that Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney had heated arguments over each other's inaction on the issue. Palin has said and done absolutely nothing in regards to her state's policies.
Alaska also is one of just eleven states that gives driver's licenses to illegal aliens. This is one area where Palin seems to have done something. In 2005, a bill was introduced to deny driver's licenses to illegal aliens. It passed the Senate in 2006, while Palin was campaigning for governor, and has not come up for a vote in the State House. It does not appear that Palin made this an issue when running for Governor.
Nonetheless, it seems like she has made it harder for illegals to get driver's licenses, because they have sued the state over the issue.
Shortly before the deadline for the implementation of the REAL ID Act, the Alaska Legislature passed a resolution banning the use of state funds to enforce it. Palin is on record opposing this resolution, and refused to sign the bill. But she let it pass without a veto. Supposedly this was done because the legislature would have overridden her veto and she did not want to waste political capital on the issue. This seems awfully analogous to Obama's voting "present" in the state legislature, which Rudy Giuliani attacked during his convention speech.
It is a safe bet to guess that Palin is against licenses for illegals, but again, it does not seem high on her priority list.
There are a few things outside Palin's record that suggest she might be good on immigration. Talk show and long time Palin supporter Laura Ingraham says she has talked to Palin about immigration, and has assured her listeners that "she's not for comprehensive reform, I can tell you that right now. She's sick to death of this immigration nonsense in the United States."
This sounds promising, but without any elaboration or any public statements to back it up, it's not conclusive.
Palin may have been a Pat Buchanan supporter during his 1996 campaign for president, although this is disputed. But if in fact Palin supported Buchanan, the fact that she won't admit it says something about how far she's willing to push the envelope. Pat won Alaska, so I don't see what is so scandalous about a Republican supporting the candidate who won the Republican contest in her state.
Moreover, even if Palin did support Pat, it doesn't necessarily mean she supports his immigration policy anymore than she supports his foreign policy—where she now clearly diverges from Buchanan. And, unlike in many other states, the pro-life movement was solidly behind Buchanan in Alaska. So her support, if it existed, was quite probably over his stance on abortion.
Palin's inaction does not mean that she supports amnesty or any other bad policy. Besides a little pandering, she hasn't done anything objectionable and a little good on the issue.
Now that Palin is a national figure, and the biggest hero for conservatives, she could take it upon herself to make a strong and vocal stand against amnesty, with no charges of flip-flopping. Unfortunately, it's impossible to imagine her doing this while campaigning with John McCain.
For immigration reform patriots, Palin remains a pig in a poke—despite the lipstick.
Marcus Epstein [send him mail] is the founder of the Robert A Taft Club and the executive director of the The American Cause and Team America PAC. A selection of his articles can be seen here. The views he expresses are his own.