The debate about immigration reform was already heating up on the right even before the revelation that the Boston Marathon bombing gave an excuse to some in Congress to put off consideration of the topic. As Seth noted, Senator Rand Paul’s decision to pull back on the issue makes it possible the topic could be used by the libertarian leader or some other conservative as an issue against gang-of-eight member Senator Marco Rubio. And with the influential Heritage Foundation’s new leader, former Senator Jim Demint, going all out to stop the bipartisan compromise that Rubio is fronting, getting the bill through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not be easy.
Reform advocates did get a boost yesterday when Representative Paul Ryan indicated his support of the underlying principles of the bill even if he did not formally endorse it. Ryan has a great deal of influence with House Republicans as well as Speaker John Boehner, but his chances of rallying the GOP against DeMint’s push won’t be helped by a Politico feature that argues that the passage of the bill effectively ensures that the Democrats won’t be losing any national elections in the foreseeable future. The piece argues that if the 11 million illegal immigrants take advantage of the path to citizenship offered by the Senate bill, the reform will produce an “electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”
This is exactly the kind of talk designed to scare the GOP grass roots into insensibility, since many of them already believe that a biased liberal media, voter fraud and the generous federal patronage plums and benefits have created an uphill slog for any Republican in a national election. But while the logic of this assumption of a windfall of potential Democratic voters can’t be ignored, Republicans would be foolish to assume that it makes sense for them to stonewall immigration reform. If they truly wish to continue as a national political force and as a natural party of government they must reject the idea that keeping more Hispanics out of the United States is their only hope of survival.
Given voter trends in recent elections, the addition of all the currently illegal immigrants in this country to the ranks of those legally entitled to vote gives Democrats a clear advantage. The already considerable Democratic edge among Hispanics has widened in recent years as Republicans increasingly focused on the danger posed to the United States by the presence of so many illegals. Mitt Romney’s decision to use immigration as the one issue on which he could out-flank his primary opponents on the right helped him win the GOP presidential nomination this year but hurt him in the general election. This meant that a demographic sector that a pro-immigrant Republican like George W. Bush had been able to put into play less than a decade ago became almost as Democratic in 2012 as African-Americans or Jews. If one assumes that this partisan divide will hold up, that means immigration reform will simply worsen the GOP’s chances in future elections and probably ensure that some competitive states like Florida or Colorado become deep blue.
But as much as these figures set off visions of doom among Republicans and inspire joy among Democrats, it isn’t as simple as that.
It should be pointed out that assumptions about future voting patterns on the part of those offered the citizenship track are pure speculation. As Politico acknowledged, voter turnout rates among Hispanic immigrants are already low. Those numbers will probably go even lower if some of the illegals become citizens.
Yet if George W. Bush could win 44 percent of Hispanics in 2004, it is not unreasonable to think a pro-immigrant Republican could do nearly as well in the future, even if he isn’t himself a Hispanic like Rubio.
Though immigrant communities have historically tended to back parties whose appeal is based on distribution of government benefits, any objective analysis of the last two presidential elections shows that it was the GOP’s predilection for rhetoric bashing the illegals that helped turn a natural Democratic edge among Hispanics to an overwhelming advantage. That means it stands to reason that if Republicans back immigration reform, that will help win them back some Hispanic votes. Even more importantly, it would mean that the issue would be taken off the table in 2016 and every subsequent election, effectively taking away the Democrats key talking point in rallying Hispanic support.
Democrats are right to think that Hispanics won’t forget the issue in the future even after their concerns have been allayed. But it will allow Republicans, especially those who fought for a more rational and fair immigration policy, to make their case to Hispanics with some hope of success.
It is true that Republicans can’t count on the innate social conservatism of many Hispanics to win them over. Nor can they afford to simply sit back and wait as Hispanic immigrants become assimilated into American society and evolve into a group that will see a party whose credo is defense of liberty and limited government as one that will suit their improved economic circumstances the way every white ethnic immigrant community, with the exception of European Jews, has done.
But any idea that stonewalling immigration reform and continuing to talk about deporting 11 million illegals is a coherent general election strategy for the future is the real GOP delusion. Whether or not those illegals—whom some conservative wags have dubbed “undocumented Democrats”—ever get the vote, legal Hispanics are going to make up an increasingly larger percentage of the national electorate. Though there are no guarantees that a pro-immigration stand will win their hearts or minds, there is one thing that is certain. A Republican Party that echoes the rhetoric of some on the right about immigration reform representing the “end of America” because of the influx of non-whites into the country will ensure that subsequent generations of Hispanics will never consider voting for the GOP.
If Republicans want to get Hispanic votes, they must start by realizing that talk about “amnesty” rather than opportunity is their party’s death knell. That’s something Rubio and Ryan seem to understand. But if the GOP simply regards immigration reform the way they do statehood for the District of Columbia (which would add two more Democrats to the Senate and another to the House), they will be denying themselves a chance to win elections in the future.