Copycat Arizona Immigration Bill Gains Support in RI

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

This January, Rhode Island will consider legislation similar to the controversial SB-1070 law Arizona passed this April. The Tea Partiers and fiscal conservatives who rallied for the bill at the State House Friday framed the debate in terms of bloated government spending--they argue illegal aliens drain state resources. Support for tough statewide search-and-deport immigration enforcement, however, smacked more of political posture than deep-seated ideology.

Rhode Island’s bill, H-8142, is sponsored by State Reps Joe Trillo (R-Warwick) and Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston), who said he copied SB-1070 almost word for word. A previous version of the bill was rebuffed in May.

In Rhode Island, the bill almost certainly won’t pass, but it may function primarily as a campaign talking point in the run-up to next month’s elections. The bill’s lead sponsor, State Representative Peter Palumbo (D-Cranston) admits he waited until 2010 to introduce the bill. “I didn’t put it in 2009. I couldn’t get support in the media because the issue kind of died.” Once Arizona passed the law in April, he decided he’d try again to bring the bill to vote. “You gotta get it while it’s warm, or forget it,” Palumbo told The Independent.

Many who support the SB-1070 Copycat bill are neither long-standing, nor fervent, anti-illegal immigration activists--Palumbo no exception. Before he introduced the bill, Palumbo had never met Rhode Island’s most-prominent anti-illegal immigration advocate, Terry Gorman.

Gorman, President of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, (RIILE) has been the unwitting beneficiary of Palumbo’s bill, which prompted nationally recognized border-watch hawk Terry Gilchrist to descend from California and rally his Minuteman Project alongside RIILE at the State House on Friday.

Meanwhile, political newcomer Karin Gorman has used her father-in-law’s recent spotlight to promote her own anti-illegal immigration platform as she runs for the Johnston seat in the General Assembly.

Other political candidates participated at the rally, but had little stake in the issue. Narragansett GOP General Assembly candidate Tim Burchett spoke Friday, but is not affiliated with the Tea Party, RIILE, or the Minuteman Project. New to the issue, he said he’s “more of an economics guy” and a “non -interventionist at heart.”

That's not to say there isn't a little economic calculus in the illegal immigration debate. Palumbo refuses to employ the racially charged rhetoric Gorman and Gilchrist use, and insists the issue is strictly a question of "dollars and cents."

Palumbo estimates that between health care, correctional facilities, education, and human services, the Rhode Island government spends somewhere between $150-350 million a year on illegal immigrants, based on the assumption that the state harbors 40,000 illegals (more widely accepted estimates place the number around 10,000). Palumbo said that of all the popular bills he has sponsored, he has “never received the support from my constituency [that] I have for this bill... I’ve been on Fox News three times; I’m getting emails from all over the country.”

Though Palumbo has emerged as a sort of folk hero for the Rhode Island Tea Party, it's unclear whether some Tea Partiers rallied in solidarity or out of ideology. Standing outside the State House in the driving rain, Tea Party member Michael Beaudette brandished an American Flag and a Gadsden Flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) almost all day Friday. Beaudette expressed a desire for immigration to be done “the right way” but much preferred to discuss the solidarity among “young folks, old folks, college kids” the Tea Party has bred. “We’re all just American people—the Tea Party isn’t against immigration, it’s against the collapse of our country from within.”

Rhode Island Tea Party President Colleen Conley was the final speaker at the rally and arrived in her trademark purple dress only minutes before she took the podium. Publicly, Conley supports the bill but said her primary immigration concern are border “crimes being perpetrated by illegal immigrants.” Conley added that her vocal support “is not to say we would need a law exactly like the Arizona bill up here,” which is what Palumbo’s bill is.

Conley and the Rhode Island Tea Party also endorsed Palumbo’s Republican opponent, Don Botts, in the November general election. “Based on his voting record, he would not have received our endorsement,” Conley said. “[Palumbo] voted too often for special interests and not in the interest of tax paying citizens.”

Conley added that she had only recently become convinced immigration was a fiscal issue once Palumbo framed the debate as a referendum on bloated government spending. “But as far as the Tea Party goes,” Conley said, “we don’t deal with a lot of issues outside of fiscal responsibility, transparency…and adherence to constitutional principles.” For Conley and other local small-government proponents, the draw of Palumbo’s bill lies almost entirely in its hot-button topicality--the issue is now too closely linked to national Tea Party activity to ignore.

Conley says her organization’s sole focus is getting political candidates the “resources and human capital” they need to get elected. Her appearance on Friday, however, amounted to a stump for the Democrat Palumbo.

This week, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer called the Tea Party a “spontaneous and quite anarchic movement with no recognized leadership or discernible organization.” The Rhode Island Tea Party has a membership of 2,500. Conley says most Rhode Island Tea Partiers are “solidly middle class—not rich, not poor—and they’re hard working, they have jobs. And they’re waking up for first time.” Many of them, like Conley, are also participating in politics for the first time. The big-tent Tea Party has released mixed signals before. As a result of Friday’s confused right-wing branding, however, the Democrat Palumbo took a step towards getting the right-wing vote he needs to cash in on his immigration gamble.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood B’11