He's out to change the GOP's image
San Francisco Chronicle,
Tuesday, July 8, 1997
Louis Freedberg, Chronicle
Washington Bureau Washington
It is rare that a conservative Republican is hailed as ``a guardian of the melting pot." At a banquet this spring, the fiercely pro-immigrant National Council of La Raza lavished that accolade, and more, on Senator Spencer Abraham, a first-term senator from Michigan who has emerged as an unlikely champion of legal immigration. In accepting the award, Abraham, 45, talked emotionally about how one of his grandfathers worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania after arriving from Lebanon, and how the other opened a mom-and-pop store in Detroit. ``I believe immigration is good for this country, and will keep fighting to keep the doors open,'' Abraham told the cheering crowd as he held aloft an etched-glass trophy.
The award was noteworthy for more than just the fact that it went to someone with Abraham's conservative credentials. As the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is one of the most powerful lawmakers on the immigration issue. In a radical departure from his predecessor on the committee, he is on a mission to change the image of the Republican Party as a party hostile to immigrants.
`GOOD FOR AMERICA'
In speeches, articles and forays outside Washington, including a visit to Silicon Valley, Abraham has been making his case loudly and clearly: Immigrants are good for America. His rapid ascension has rendered critics of current immigration policies apoplectic. ``For 30 years, when Republicans were in the minority in Congress, they were on the side of immigration control, enforcement and restriction,'' said K. C. McAlpin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates steep reductions in legal immigration. ``Now all of a sudden, they have done a complete about-face. It's like getting the football at the end of the game and running toward your own goal line.''
Others, however, are ecstatic about Abraham's rise, which they see as an admission by the GOP that it has gone too far on immigration -- with potentially disastrous consequences at the ballot box. ``The Republican Party has acknowledged that they are perceived as being anti-immigrant, and suffered in most recent elections as a result of that,'' said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. ``Abraham represents a branch of the party very different from the folks who have been calling the shots over the past several years.''
Abraham's rise has been nothing less than meteoric. He has been a senator for fewer than three years, replacing retiring Donald Riegle, a liberal Democrat. Abraham labored for many years as a Republican Party functionary, eventually becoming a top aide to Vice President Dan Quayle in 1990. Many thought he lacked the charisma to triumph in the key senatorial race. But his consistently conservative views helped him ride the tidal wave that gave Republicans control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in nearly 50 years. Since coming to Washington, he has emerged as a leading proponent of deep tax cuts. (Former Senator Robert Dole's proposal for an across-the-board 15 percent tax cut was his idea.) He successfully defeated legislation to reduce sentences for the sale of crack cocaine. And he is passionately opposed to abortion.
When it comes to immigration, however, he says his goal will be to bring a ``more balanced approach'' to the debate. ``I believe that the negative factors associated with immigration have received center stage, without almost any attention on the positive consequences,'' Abraham said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. ``If all that people hear is the negative, the bad, naturally they will conclude that some Draconian approach must be taken to solve the problem.'' His positions on immigration are shared by other prominent conservatives, including Senator Phil Gramm, former Education Secretary William Bennett and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp. They hold that free-market economics, free trade and the entrepreneurial energies that immigrants bring contribute to economic growth.
What distinguishes Abraham from the others is that he is the first to be in a position in Congress to translate those ideas into law. A mark of just how far he has come is that the previous chairman of the immigration subcommittee was Senator Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who for decades was the GOP's leading voice on immigration. Last year, Simpson wanted to cut legal immigration by nearly 40 percent and require employers to pay a fee of $10,000 for every skilled foreign worker they hired.
It is a mark of Abraham's gentility that Simpson, who is now retired from the Senate, claims to bear no hard feelings toward the person who prevented him from putting his imprint on U.S. immigration policy for the next decade at least. ``He is very able, very bright, and very articulate,'' Simpson said recently. ``But he has a totally different view of legal immigration than I do, based on the simple fact that he is of Lebanese American extraction and he represents the largest group of Lebanese outside of Lebanon.'' The consequence, Simpson said, is ``we will have about a million immigrants come in here each year, more than we have ever had in our history, and we will obviously have to deal with it.''
ADVISER TO LOTT
Abraham was picked by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to fill Simpson's slot as a result of an unlikely confluence of events. Senator Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the likely successor to Simpson to head the seven-person committee, did not want the job. The other more senior members already had chairmanships elsewhere, so the position fell to Abraham. But if Lott had disapproved of Abraham's views, someone else would have been prevailed upon to take the post. In fact, Lott and Abraham are unusually close. Abraham is one of six senators who make up Lott's inner circle of advisers, referred to informally as ``The Council of Trent.''
One of Abraham's first forays to spread the immigration gospel was to Silicon Valley in January, where he appeared at a gathering at Cypress Semiconductor that was hosted by T.J. Rodgers, the company's founder and CEO. Rodgers has been the most outspoken critic of attempts to limit legal immigration, especially of the skilled workers that Silicon Valley executives say they desperately need. ``This immigrant-driven company employs 1,800 people from the U.S.,'' Abraham told the group. ``Immigrants' contributions keep our economy producing more wealth and jobs for us all.'' While Abraham was talking, about 100 pickets organized by FAIR, the anti-immigrant group, carried posters with slogans such as ``Close the Border'' and ``Immigrants Smuggle Drugs.''
These views put Abraham at odds with his counterpart in the House, Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who heads the House Subcommittee on Immigration. Smith, who declined to comment about Abraham, has been much more skeptical -- and at times openly critical -- about the contributions of immigrants. The fact that Abraham and Smith do not see eye to eye on this issue means that, for the foreseeable future, any proposal to restrict legal immigration will not make much headway on Capitol Hill.
Abraham says his positions on immigration carry political risks. He notes that John Tanton, the founder and chairman of FAIR, has threatened to run against him in 2000 on a ``single issue anti-immigration plank.'' But for now, he insists he is unperturbed, promising to continue with his plans to offer a fairer hearing on the contributions of immigrants. ``There is a widespread sentiment that anybody who comes to this country either ends up going on welfare or taking jobs from Americans,'' he said. ``Part of the reason for these hard feelings is that only one side of the discussion has been heard for a while. My hope is that we will take a more balanced approach in this Congress.''