How Conservative Media Obliterated The Space For "Compassionate Conservatism" On Immigration

How Conservative Media Obliterated The Space For "Compassionate Conservatism" On Immigration

Blog ››› ››› JESSICA TORRES

On June 26, 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush shared his view of immigrants and Latino-Americans in a speech before the 71st National Conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "Latinos come to the U.S. to seek the same dreams that have inspired millions of others: they want a better life for their children," Bush said, calling immigration "not a problem to be solved," but "the sign of a successful nation."

With campaign strategist Karl Rove "acting as his guide," Bush went on to champion "compassionate conservatism" throughout his first presidential campaign, with an unprecedented -- for the GOP -- Hispanic outreach effort as its centerpiece. To this day, no Republican candidate has come close to winning as much of the Hispanic vote as Bush did in 2000 -- (34 percent) and 2004 (44 percent).

Ten years on, George's brother Jeb has tried to strike a similarly compassionate tone on immigration in his own quest for the White House. In April, 2014 -- more than a year before he declared his candidacy -- Jeb Bush told Fox News' Shannon Bream that many immigrants who enter the United States illegally often do so as "an act of love" for their families.

But unlike his brother, whose gentler tone on immigration was viewed as a strength, Jeb Bush was skewered for his remarks, especially by conservative media figures.

In the span of a few election cycles, "compassionate conservatism" on immigration has evolved from a winning Republican campaign strategy to a major liability for GOP presidential candidates. That shift is due in large part to the growing influence of conservative media in the debate over immigration.

Though George W. Bush won two terms as a "compassionate conservative," he never succeeded in passing immigration reform in Congress. That failure was due in part to the mobilization of right-wing media, which coalesced in the wake of his 2004 re-election. "You could say that talk radio killed President Bush's attempts at immigration reform," Frank Sharry of America's Voice told The Washington Post in 2013. "They started to lurch to the right, they wanted to give Bush a bloody nose, the conservative media mobilized."

Conservative media's opposition to immigration reform, led by talk radio, has only intensified since the defeat of the Senate immigration bill Bush supported in 2007: Rush Limbaugh recently claimed that the "colonization" or "invasion" of "illegal aliens" creates a "destructive" subculture in the U.S.; Laura Ingraham said that Congress's "Hispanic Caucus" should be renamed the "Open Borders Caucus" and claimed that migrant children were spreading diseases to "public school kids across the country;" and Texas radio host Michael Berry claimed that killings by "illegal aliens" are "not a rare occurrence."

At the same time, right-wing radio hosts have worked tirelessly to pull Republican politicians to the right on immigration, often by inciting anti-Hispanic sentiment among listeners. Rush Limbaugh has told the GOP to ignore the "non-factor" Hispanic vote. Laura Ingraham told her listeners that former Colorado U.S. Senate candidate Cory Gardner needed to move closer to the views of the extreme right on immigration, like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Chuck Grassley.

Perhaps the most extreme example of right-wing talk radio's hostility toward immigration came in August of 2015. Iowa Caucus GOP kingmaker and radio host Jan Mickelson, who has hosted several 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls on his show, proposed on-air that the state of Iowa enslave undocumented immigrants, saying, "Put up a sign that says at the end of 60 days, if you are not here with our permission, can't prove your legal status, you become property of the state. And then we start to extort or exploit or indenture your labor." Mickelson has previously said that he assumes that someone is not "here legally" if they have a Hispanic-sounding name and a history of involvement with the police.

Fox News has also become a major driver of right-wing fearmongering on immigration. The network's personalities regularly disparage immigrants as criminals and murderers and use derogatory and racist terms like "illegals" and "anchor babies" to describe undocumented immigrants. They also attack Hispanic civil rights groups and indiscriminately show stock video footage of immigrants crossing the border during on-air discussions about immigration. Fox News personalities have peddled the harmful and false stereotype that Hispanics immigrants are all criminals. As Sean Hannity once told his millions of radio listeners: "You want to talk about crime? Well what do you think -- who's coming from Latin America and Mexico? Are they rich, successful Mexicans, Nicaraguans, El Salvador residents? No! Why would they leave if they're so successful?"

Unsurprisingly, Fox's immigration coverage has been heavily influenced by the views of extreme anti-immigrant groups like FAIR, NumbersUSA, and Center for Immigration Studies - groups that Bush's former commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, named as part of the right-wing coalition that derailed immigration reform in 2007.

Conservative media's disparaging treatment of Latinos and immigration is especially problematic given the lack of positive depictions of Latinos in mainstream media. According to a study by Columbia University, news "stories about Latinos constitute less than 1% of news media coverage, and the majority of these stories feature Latinos as lawbreakers."

The National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) and Latino Decisions found that media stereotypes in news media about Latinos fuel negative and "hostile" attitudes, making it even harder to have reasonable or compassionate conversations about immigration reform. It's no surprise, then, that talk radio and Fox News audiences also exhibit "significantly more anti-immigrant and anti-Latino affect relative to other media consumer groups."

Conservative media's harmful coverage of immigration isn't purely motivated by animus towards Latinos; it's also a product of a media economy that incentivizes media outlets to make their coverage as sensational as possible, even if that means scaring audiences with unrealistic depictions of Latino criminality. Political media often thrives by making policy disputes as high-stakes as possible. In the case of immigration, that means emphasizing the "threat" posed by immigrants to the predominantly white, older Americans who consume conservative media. As Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) has pointed out, "it's a financially driven enterprise and market share matters":

"While it's conservative in its orientation, it's a financially driven enterprise and market share matters. And playing to the prejudice of their audiences or reinforcing them - as opposed to engaging in enlightened and intellectual debate - is pretty widespread." The best example, he said, is immigration reform: "Here's an area we have to deal with, we've got to come to an accommodation. But the opposition, especially of talk radio, makes that almost impossible. Who in the conservative media is arguing for some kind of comprehensive immigration reform? Almost nobody."

"Today's conservative media now shapes the agenda of the party, pushing it to the far right," writes Jackie Colmes, author of a Harvard study which examined conservative media's impact on conservative politicians. According to Colmes, the GOP's rhetoric and policy positions on immigration have largely followed conservative media's lead, despite the party's own advice about developing better relationships with Hispanics.

The shrinking divide between conservative media and GOP policy on immigration helps explain why presidential candidate Donald Trump has soared in Republican voter polls by telling wildly false and exaggerated horror stories about Mexican immigrants. Trump is essentially mirroring the fear-based, fact-free approach to immigration popularized by conservative media outlets like Fox News. "[Roger] Ailes knows that Fox made Trump, politically, and that the two are made for each other," wrote Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky. And as former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett told Mother Jones, "Trump is sort of the most obvious example in which Fox is exercising outside influence on the Republican electoral process. I think without Fox, he would not be running, let alone a serious candidate." Various Fox News personalities have applauded Trump's immigrant smears -- echoing years of the network's own anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Largely because of the influence of anti-immigration, right-wing media, GOP politicians are losing the space they once had to call for a more compassionate tone on immigration and towards Latinos. It's a symptom of a political landscape that's blurred the divide between profit-driven conservative infotainment -- which often plays up racist and xenophobic stereotypes about Latinos -- and mainstream Republican politics.

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