Political observers have been warning Republicans for the last several years that the willingness of many of its leaders to indulge in immigrant bashing was a mistake. While Americans have every right to ask that their laws be enforced, the hyping of illegal immigration as a major campaign issue is a decision that may affect the GOP’s ability to appeal to Hispanic voters for years to come. The question is, are there enough Republicans willing to take the flack from the party’s grass roots to work on legislation that is not only fair-minded but might actually give Republicans a fighting chance to win Hispanic support?
The answer from Senator Marco Rubio is yes. Politico reports the rising Republican star is hoping to gather enough GOP votes to enable the Senate to pass some version of the DREAM act which would create a path to citizenship for children of illegals who seek higher education or military service. But though Rubio’s plan makes sense, Senate Democrats are not wrong to point out that this bill has zero chance of being passed by the Republican House this year.
That’s hardly surprising given the way most of the Republican presidential candidates pandered to anti-illegal immigrant sentiment during the primaries. Though accused by conservatives of being a Massachusetts moderate, immigration was one issue on which Mitt Romney was able to get to the right of most of the field. The one outlier on immigration was Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was correct to point out that it was both heartless and impractical to think that 12 million illegals were going to be deported. But his scheme that envisioned the creation of local immigration boards — after the pattern of the draft-era Selective Service boards — was a non-starter.
Romney, who was endorsed this week by Rubio, is opposed to the DREAM act in its current form but has said he would be open to a version that was restricted to those children of undocumented immigrants who wished to join the military. Other Republicans have been willing to go along provided that the act stops short of granting such persons full citizenship.
Given the popularity of a harsh response to illegals within Republican ranks, it’s doubtful that Rubio’s initiative has much chance. Denouncing measures, such as Texas’ decision to grant in-state tuition discounts to such children, as Romney did during the presidential debates, is an easy applause line among conservatives. But, as Rubio points out, penalizing the children of illegals, who broke no laws on their own, doesn’t make much sense or help the country. America needs more productive and educated citizens. Stigmatizing the illegals merely keeps them working in a shadow economy and does no one any good.
As for the GOP, it would do well to follow Rubio’s advice. While Romney won’t lose the 2012 election because of his stance on immigration, in the long run, Republicans need to find a way to reach Hispanic voters. Given the social conservatism of much of that demographic, they ought to be fertile ground for the Republicans. But until the party stops using illegals as a punching bag, Hispanics will remain firmly in the Democrats’ pockets.