Immigration is not shaping up to be an important element of the presidential campaign. The president won’t even utter the word since getting burned by the ferocious reaction to his January illegal-alien amnesty proposal; Sen. Kerry, while an even more enthusiastic support of amnesties than the president, doesn’t talk about it either, apparently fearing that voters will come to think of him as the illegal-alien candidate.
But that could change if Kerry picks New Mexico’s Gov. Bill Richardson as his vice-presidential running mate. The reason is not that Richardson is half Hispanic (though that may be why Kerry picks him), but that Richardson signed a bill last year giving illegals driver’s licenses and continues to defend it. He recently described opposition to such measures as “ideologically senseless” and said changing the license law was a response to “reality in border states.”
The lack of political backlash to Richardson’s stance may be seen as a sign of his political acumen and a potential asset as a vice-presidential candidate. After all, Gray Davis lost the governorship in California after signing just such a bill, and Jeb Bush was recently forced to back down from his effort to give illegals licenses in Florida — so if Richardson was able to pull it off, he must be a genius.
Well, no. Despite its name and the fact that it’s a border state, New Mexico is not an important immigrant destination. The INS in January 2003 estimated that New Mexico had fewer illegal aliens than Indiana or Tennessee, and the percentage of New Mexico’s population that is foreign-born is less than that of Connecticut or Alaska. Immigration is not a politically salient issue in New Mexico because there just aren’t that many immigrants — so Richardson can get away with promoting licenses for illegals. But at the national level, this is not the case, and even if the president doesn’t make a point of it, other Republicans will.