Candidates Use Immigration As Political Weapon

Immigration has been the subject of many attack ads in the final stretch of campaigning for mid-term elections. Some of the ads feature menacing-looking Latinos crossing a fence while others play on fears that so-called "illegals" want to use taxpayer money for college tuition. Host Michel Martin talks with Matt Barreto, who is a political science professor at University of Washington, and media consultant Lionel Sosa, who has produced campaign ads for Presidents Ronald Regan and George W. Bush as well as presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This is ancient history to some, but almost 20 years ago, the country was riveted by the televised confirmation hearings of now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the allegations that he sexually harassed several women in his office. As we said, this was almost 20 years ago, so why did Justice Thomas' wife call his most famous accuser almost two weeks ago? We'll speak with Harvard Law Professor, Charles Ogletree, who played a role in the hearings. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about another contentious and emotional issue that's playing a role in the midterm elections now less than two weeks away. With much of the campaign rhetoric focused on Washington's spending on the nation's sluggish economy, immigration has also become the issue of choice for some candidates, especially in their attack ads.

Here's an ad by Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who's running against Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon. Here it is.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): I'm David Vitter and I approve this message.

Unidentified Man: Charlie Melancon, thanks to him, we might as well put out a welcome sign for illegal aliens. Melancon voted to make it easier for illegals to get taxpayer funded benefits and actual welfare checks. Melancon even voted against allowing

MARTIN: That's just a portion of one of the ads we'll be talking about today. We wanted to talk more about why immigration has become the focus of so many ads. So we've called Matt Barreto. He's an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, the director of the Washington Institute for the study of Ethnicity and Race. He's also a pollster at Latino Decisions, a polling firm.

Also with us is Lionel Sosa. He's a media consultant. He's produced campaign ads for a number of Republicans, including former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, as well as Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Professor MATT BARRETO (Political Science, University of Washington): Glad to be here.

Mr. LIONEL SOSA (Media Consultant): Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: So, Lionel Sosa, first, I'd like to ask you: the David Vitter ad, is it effective and why?

Mr. SOSA: Well, it's effective because, you know, as Americans living here in this land of immigrants, we've never really welcomed the newest immigrant to this country - whatever that immigrant was, you know, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, German, whatever. We fight them, we fear them, we want them to go back. We've never really welcomed them.

With this newest wave of Latinos, after 9/11, it brought a new feeling to the whole issue of immigration. Now we're really supposed to fear them, because Mexicans are like terrorists. They come into this country in the dead of night. They are criminals. And so, all of that is nothing but bunk. They are really people who are coming here

MARTIN: So you don't agree with the use of the ad? Although you acknowledge -you think it's effective, but you personally don't - you personally find it distasteful. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. SOSA: Oh, it's very distasteful because it's making look - the people that we lure here to work and - to really - we're positioning as terrorists, as somebody who will hurt us and who are criminals and who are illegal, that we don't want them here, they're bad for us.

MARTIN: Okay. Matt, let me ask you this question. Do you think it's an effective ad? And just describe a little bit about the politics of why you think this ad may or may not be effective.

Prof. BARRETO: Well, I think it depends on the context of the state. So in a state like Louisiana, where only two percent of the electorate is Hispanic, it could be effective - as Mr. Sosa said - in getting some white voters to be concerned about this immigration issue. But if you contrast that to the ads that are running in the state of Nevada, that the Republican candidate Sharron Angle is running, which are very similar. And, in fact, use some of the exact same video images as the Vitter ad, it's not effective.

And the reason it's not effective in Nevada is that it will alienate and upset the Hispanic electorate in Nevada, which is about 14 percent of all the voters, and may cause the final election to swing in favor of Reid. So...

MARTIN: Let me just play a little bit of the ad so that people know what we're talking about. And just to set it up for people who may not have seen it, that the Vitter ad, and as you mentioned, that the Angle ad also features some of the same footage - it features actors who are supposed to be Latino, dressed in, you know, I don't know how to describe it, they're dressed with, you know, head rags...

Mr. SOSA: Like gangsters.

MARTIN: Well, okay, thank you. All right, you can

Prof. BARRETO: Gangsters. Yes.

MARTIN: Like gangsters, if we can all agree on that. And with, you know, head rags sneaking through the fence looking really gleeful as they're sort of climbing through a hole in the fence. And here's a little bit of Sharron Angle's ad attacking incumbent Democratic Senator and Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Here it is.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican Senate Candidate, Nevada): I'm Sharron Angle and I approve this message.

Unidentified Man #2: First, Harry Reid votes to give special tax breaks and Social Security benefits to illegal aliens. Then Reid cheers as the President of Mexico slams Arizona's tough illegal immigration law. Now Reid has introduced a plan that gives illegals a pathway to amnesty and even special college tuition rates with the money coming from Nevada taxpayers. Harry Reid, the best friend illegals have ever had.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of you, have these kinds of ads on this particular issue, been successful in the past? I think from the presidential election 2008, many people might remember Tom Tancredo's ad. He was a Republican candidate for president. But he was never considered a major figure and it, you know, it played on what Lionel Sosa called the immigrant as terrorist theme, very explicitly. But he was never considered a particularly strong candidate.

So I'd like to ask both of you - Lionel, I'll ask you first - whether an ad on this issue has been effective in the past.

Mr. SOSA: Well, I agree with Dr. Barreto, this is not going to work for Sharron Angle in Nevada. Nevada - because of the Las Vegas industry that employs a lot of immigrants, there is just a whole lot of people here that are going to be really turned off by this ad. And this election is getting so close, that it may well be decided by the Latino vote. Now, if you alienate the Latino, as she has, that's a very, very bad strategy.

MARTIN: Matt, before you answer, I'll just say that if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with media consultant Lionel Sosa, who's produced ads for a number of Republican candidates, including former presidential candidate John McCain; and political science professor and pollster Matt Barreto.

We're talking about some negative campaign ads featuring anti-immigration sentiments in the final stretch of the midterm elections. Matt, what about you? Do you - or Professor Barreto, I should say - are you - is there a history of an ad like this being effective?

Prof. BARRETO: You know, if you go back to 2006, Michel, when immigration was at the forefront of the agenda. The immigration rallies had happened, there was a very strict and negative bill in the House - the Sensenbrenner Bill. There were a number of Republican candidates who ran on strict anti-immigration policies back in 2006. Not a single one of them got elected to the House that year, and - including folks who ran in Arizona, who ran in some places in the South, in North Carolina and elsewhere where immigrants had seen their population grow.

And it's not an issue, that by itself, really resonates enough with the American public. A majority of the American public tends to tell us in surveys, that they support comprehensive immigration reform; that they want to do something smart about dealing with immigrants who are here and who are working and contributing to the economy. And only very, very small percentages of Americans say that they should be deported and sent back home.

And so it's not an issue. It's an issue that gets sensationalized, but it's not an issue that you can run a very strong anti-immigrant campaign and expect that the election's going to turn on that. The only risk is that you will alienate Latino voters. It's happened time and again. And we see the same thing here in 2010.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I'm only interrupting because there were two more ads I wanted to talk to you about in the three minutes that we have left. I just want to make sure that people understand that it isn't just Republicans airing attack ads based on immigration. In Idaho, a Blue Dog Democratic congressman, Walt Minnick, is running this ad attacking his Republican challenger, Raul Labrador. Here it is.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Representative WALT MINNICK (Democrat, Idaho): I'm Walt Minnick, and I approve this message.

Unidentified Man: Illegal immigration's good business for Raul Labrador. Over half of his work is helping illegal immigrants stay in the United States. He even ran rapidimmigration.com with easy-to-understand advice for illegal immigrants seeking amnesty. What does Raul think of our broken immigration system?

Mr. RAUL LABRADOR (Republican Congressional Candidate, Idaho): Now, I like it because I make a good living because of it.

Unidentified Man #3: Illegal immigration may be good for Raul Labrador, but that sure makes him wrong for Idaho.

MARTIN: So, Matt, I'm going to ask you about that.

Prof. BARRETO: There's no difference in what you played and what the Republican ads are. I mean, I think they're all coming from the same angle of trying to play on the fears of Americans on immigration. And, again, if you - you have to look at the context of the district there in Idaho where that one is running. There is probably not a very large Hispanic population.

And so in those instances, where the Latino vote is very small, you often see -and as a consequence, it usually means the immigrant population is usually really small, so it's much ado about nothing. Those candidates may be running those ads. But in all cases, you know, they're definitely something that turns Latinos away from those candidates and away from the system.

MARTIN: Okay. I should - want to mention, Raul Labrador is an immigration attorney. So that is in part why he helps people get immigration status.

And, finally, Lionel Sosa, I'm going to ask you about an ad, a Spanish-language ad urging Latino voters in Nevada not to vote at all. I'll just play a very short piece of it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man #4: (Spanish spoken)

MARTIN: And it says: Don't vote. You heard right, don't vote. And the ad goes on to say that not voting is the only way to be taken seriously.

What do you make of that? I should mention Spanish-language media giant Univision has said it will not air this ad, which was produced by a group called Latinos for Reform, which has a Republican consultant behind it. It's the public face of it. Lionel Sosa, your thoughts?

Mr. SOSA: Well, as a strategy, it's really brilliant. I am so glad that Univision is not running this ad, because the worst thing you can do for the citizenry of this country is ask it not to vote. But it does come up with something very interesting. What has the Obama administration really done for Latinos on any issue that's important to Latinos, whether it's jobs, whether it's the economy, whether it's education, whether it's immigration? Nothing. So they have nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, they have nothing to get excited about on the Republican side, because Republicans have really done nothing, either. So...

MARTIN: Would you run that ad?

Mr. SOSA: No, absolutely not. I would not - that is something for the voter to decide on their own. The Democrats have done nothing. The Republicans have done nothing. Therefore, I'm not going to vote. But we shouldn't tell them that.

MARTIN: Okay. We'll leave it there for now. Lionel Sosa's a media consultant who's produced campaign ads for former President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. He's the founder of Bromley Communications. At one point, it was the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the country. And he joined us from San Antonio.

Matt Barreto was also with us. He's an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. He's also the director of the Washington Institute for the study of ethnicity and race and a pollster with Latino Decisions. He joined us from his office in Washington.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. BARRETO: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SOSA: Thank you.

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