Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean yesterday called border security his party’s top immigration priority for November.
“The first thing we want is tough border control,” he said. “We have to do a much better job on our borders than George Bush has done. And then we can go to the policy disagreements about how to get it done.”
Republicans reacted with surprise to Mr. Dean’s announcement, which puts the DNC chief’s views at odds with those of many Democrats in Congress.
“If Dean means what he says about border enforcement, that would put the Democrats somewhere to the right of President Bush on immigration,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee dismissed Mr. Dean’s “newfound commitment to border security” as “not believable.”
A Gallup Poll of 1,004 Americans this month found that 81 percent think illegal immigration to the United States is out of control and that 79 percent think it’s extremely or very important for the government to take steps this year to halt the flood of illegal aliens.
Mr. Dean said he wants “immigrants who obey the law and pay taxes to be able to apply for citizenship. We support earned legalization vigorously. And, much to my surprise, so do the American people.”
Mr. Dean said his party will make immigration an issue as part of its strategy to “nationalize” the fall elections and is opening a television advertising campaign — beginning with Spanish-language pitches on radio stations in three Southwestern states — that puts tougher border enforcement first.
Only recently, after prodding by Republican lawmakers who said they were feeling heat from frustrated constituents, has Mr. Bush applied rhetorical emphasis to stanching the influx of illegal aliens.
Nevertheless, the latest Bush-backed immigration proposal in the Senate includes a guest-worker program that some Republican lawmakers denounce as an amnesty that would reward lawbreakers.
Speaking yesterday at a breakfast for political reporters at the St. Regis Hotel, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Dean told reporters that Democrats would attack Republicans on “values” in this fall’s midterm elections.
“The biggest issues in the elections are character issues,” Mr. Dean said, vowing to go after “the president’s and the Republicans’ trustworthiness — their honesty — and to their competence. And they’re going to lose big on both those issues.”
Democrats have suggested that this is their best chance in years to recapture control of Congress. Finessing the immigration issue will require Democrats to walk a tightrope between appealing to Hispanic voters and assuaging the Democrats’ strongest constituency, labor unions — many of whose rank-and-file members view illegal aliens as undermining wages and job security for U.S.-born workers.
“We don’t like guest-worker programs,” said Mr. Dean, a candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. “I don’t like guest-worker programs. I think the president’s guest-worker program is essentially indentured servitude. It doesn’t help the immigrant, and it threatens wages.”
Giving a preview of the kinds of accusations that Republican candidates across the country can expect to face as the elections near, Mr. Dean said: “We want tough and smart immigration reform, we want border control, and if we have to increase the federal protection along the borders, we will.
“Don’t forget — the Republicans have been in power for five years. They’ve had the House and Senate and the White House most of that time. And they have done nothing about immigration.”
Not true, said Mr. King, who represents a district along the Missouri River in western Iowa. He said 200 Democrats voted against a bill passed by the House in December that mandates stronger border security.
“If Dean and his Democrats in the Senate are serious, they could force the president to make a decision to sign or veto an enforcement-only package,” he said. Mr. Bush and several Senate Republicans have sought to tie border enforcement to a guest-worker plan — a program that many of the Republican Party’s conservative supporters sharply criticized.
Mr. Dean accused Bush strategist Karl Rove and the Republican Party of trying to turn immigration into a divisive partisan election issue.
“I have no intention of losing this battle,” he said. “They started it, and we are going to win it.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz yesterday responded scornfully to Mr. Dean’s immigration rhetoric.
“Someone should remind Howard Dean that it was [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid [Nevada Democrat] who obstructed immigration reform, underscoring the fact that Democrats would rather manipulate the issue than reform it,” he said. “President Bush and Republicans in Congress have increased border-security funding by more than 65 percent, expanded the number of border agents by 30 percent and significantly upgraded technology on the border.”