Walking a political tightrope on immigration

Capturing the immigration debate in political ads this campaign season — without upsetting Hispanic voters — is proving tricky for candidates.

An ad criticizing Stephen Laffey, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record) for the Republican nomination in Rhode Island, set off grumbling in the Latino community. The ad criticized Laffey, mayor of Cranston, for allowing city police to accept ID cards issued by the Mexican government as identification.

Chafee’s spokesman had no comment about the ad. Laffey’s campaign called it an insensitive attack on the mayor’s attempt to empathize with “people who struggle and who try to make a better life for themselves.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee said the ad, which it sponsored, raises legitimate questions. “This ad is about our national security, and it speaks to concerns raised by the FBI,” spokesman Dan Ronayne said Monday.

Polls have shown Laffey and Chafee running neck-and-neck in a race that has gained national attention.

The winner of the Republican primary will likely face Democratic former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in the November election.

The immigration debate was left hanging when Congress adjourned for the summer. Rather than negotiate a compromise on the vastly different bills passed by the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats have traded barbs over immigration at field hearings and in campaign ads.

“Both parties are crossing the line,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, which is calling for an end to such ads. “The issue of what to do about immigration is fair game for this election, demonizing an entire community is not.”

The Chafee-Laffey race is not the only one bedeviled by this problem.

For example:

  • In his first campaign ad, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., boasted of his immigrant heritage, but said some immigrants today have sinister motives for entering and lists how he’s tried to beef up border security. The ad was intended to appeal to voters worried about losing their jobs to immigrants.
  • Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has an ad on his re-election campaign Web site praising his anti-terrorism work. The ad includes an image of him standing in the desert near two white SUVs, similar to those used by the Border Patrol. Critics say the scene looks like the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • Republican Brian Bilbray is believed to have sealed his victory in a June California runoff to fill the House seat of disgraced former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham with an immigration ad suggesting Democrat Francine Busby was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote.

Even Internet ads have drawn ire. Without commenting, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently removed a Web ad that Republican and Democratic Hispanics decried as offensive because it squeezed images of two people trying to cross a border fence between video of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The ad asked, “Feel Secure?”

Ads attacking immigrants are worrisome because they foretell how a candidate will govern, said Marselo Gaete, senior director of programs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“If you run with a slash and burn tactic addressing the very serious problem of immigration reform, that’s how you are going to deal with it,” Gaete said.

The Web ad so outraged Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who is Mexican-American, that she fired off a letter to committee chairman Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y. Alvarado, who says she’s very loyal to the party, said likening illegal immigrants to bazooka-toting terrorists undermined Democrats’ positive relationship with Latinos.

“It’s a slippery slope if not done carefully,” she said. “If you look at the 9/11 attacks those are not people who crossed the Mexican border. Those are people who got through our airports.”

Rhode Island state Sen. Juan M. Pichardo, a Dominican-American, was equally critical of the NRSC ad attacking Laffey. “To me and the Latino community and the immigrant community, it is an ad that is mean-spirited, divisive and has no place in Rhode Island,” Pichardo said.

Focusing on positive aspects of the Latino culture — family, culture, future — is the best way to reach the community, even in negative ads, said Lorena Chambers, founder of Chambers Lopez & Gaitan, an advertising company.

For Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, Chambers created an award-winning ad that criticized President Bush’s education policies, but featured a Latina in cap and gown with her mother.

Frank Guerra, who helped produce an ad for Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign, said creating ads for Hispanics is complicated by the population’s diversity. Their views on immigration are just as varied.

“It’s tricky and precarious no matter what you do because this is an issue where the people are all over the map. You are going to make some people happy and you are going to make some furious,” said Guerra, founder of Guerra DeBerry Coody marketing and communications

His advice to campaigns: “Tread carefully.”


Associated Press Writer M.L. Johnson in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad: http://www.factcheck.org/article417.html  

Republican National Senatorial Committee ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vkE6De4VqFfg

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press