Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush says that immigration “is not a problem to be solved. It is the sign of a successful nation. New Americans are to be welcomed as neighbors and not to be feared as strangers.” In 1996, the Republican platform advocated an end to granting automatic citizenship to children born to illegal aliens. Under Bush, the 2000 platform does not mention “illegal immigration” or illegal aliens. As the Texas governor puts it: “Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande.”

Yet immigration could emerge as a sleeper issue in Michigan, where freshman Republican U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham is locked in a close race with Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, Abraham supported a controversial increase in the number of skilled HIB visa workers from 65,000 to 115,000 per year. He later told the Detroit News that even more HIB visas should be granted to noncitizens. “I know some people criticize these visas,” Abraham said. “But if we can’t have those workers here, you can bet they’ll go to their native countries and create competition.” The odds favor Abraham in November: he has the power of incumbency and a substantial fundraising advantage over Stabenow, whose main claim to fame is that she is a career politician first elected to office in 1976. The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, the Harvard-educated Abraham is likely to benefit from a crossover vote among the country’s largest bloc of Arab- Americans, based in metro Detroit, who tend to vote Democratic.

Abraham’s position on immigration has been criticized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been airing advertisements in Michigan. The FAIR ads contend that Abraham’s legislation, S. 2045, would harm American high-tech workers by granting employers an unfair advantage over citizens who work in the industry. FAIR maintains that the bill contains no protection for the jobs or wages of native workers, and that it would permit employers to hire guest laborers instead of citizens and legal immigrants. Abraham’s campaign has responded by calling the FAIR ads the work of “hate groups.”

In 1994, Abraham was elected with 52 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Carr. The contest was a three-man race until the final ten days. Libertarian Jon Coon mounted a serious campaign based upon Second Amendment rights, blanketing Michigan with thousands of orange hunter signs. Abraham’s supporters responded by airing electronic ads by rock star Ted Nugent, a staunch hunter/Second Amendment advocate. Coon still received about five percent of the vote.

This year, Abraham faces Stabenow, Libertarian Michael Corliss, and the Reform Party’s Mark Forton, former chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, home of the Reagan Democrats. Among the candidates, only Forton opposes unlimited immigration, “If our population doubles in the 21st century’ as a result of immigration,” Forton says, “America as we know it will not survive. We will lose our freedoms, our constitutional rights.” He advocates a five-year moratorium on new immigration; making English the official language; repealing taxpayer benefits for illegal aliens, and restricting the influx of immigrants to “180,000 to 250,000 annually,” the traditional norm.

Forton links open immigration to multilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA and GAIT, charging that both have driven down the real wages of middleclass Americans. An autoworker for 35 years, Forton echoes Reform Party presidential nominee Pat Buchanan, who ran well in Michigan in the 1992 and 1996 Republican primaries. “Many corporations,” Forton argues, “have become so immoral, so corrupt, that their first loyalty is no longer to America. They would rather pay a Third World worker a dollar a day than pay a working mother in America eight dollars an hour.” Abraham’s policies are “bringing Third World immigrants into this country to provide a source of cheap labor for corporations that make large campaign contributions,” says Forton. “It’s not just the automobile industry. It’s most of America’s high-paying manufacturing jobs.” Michigan, he believes, “needs a U.S. senator from Michigan, not California.”

The Republicans are ignoring Forton; there is little evidence that he is mounting as serious a campaign as Coon did in 1994. Although immigration could still emerge as a sleeper issue in debates, it is more likely to play a factor in the 2002 reapportionment. In a clever yet overlooked essay in the September 6 issue of Inside Michigan Politics, editor Bill Ballenger (a former Republican state senator) writes that the “Problem is, Abraham’s approach to immigration has produced two results: Michigan is more likely to lose another seat in Congress after the next Census; and the Republican party will probably lose seats in the U.S. House it now holds to new districts in the South and West that will be won by Democrats, costing the COP its hard won majority.” Ballenger cites the work of Stephen A. Camarota, a resident at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., who found, in a study coauthored by Texas A&M professor Dudley L. Boston, Jr., that the number of immigrants living in the United States has nearly tripled from 9.5 million (five percent of the population) in 1970 to 27 million (or ten percent) today. Seventy-five percent live in only six states, including California. To estimate the political impact of immigration, Camarota and Boston analyzed the 1990 census count and 2000 projections and then recalculated the apportionment of House seats. Industrial states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania will lose seats, while immigrant-rich California will likely gain nine seats, making its electoral significance even greater.

Ballenger observes, “A cynic might opine that Abraham has already calculated that the Congressional seat Michigan may lose after 2000 is likely to be one now held by a Democrat, not a Republican. But that’s what Republicans thought would happen after the 1990 Census, and it didn’t work out that way.” Back then, the Michigan Republican Party chair was Spencer Abraham.