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The Dark Side of the Immigration Debate

As I noted earlier today, Marco Rubio is taking the brunt of the backlash from some conservatives who oppose efforts to reform America’s failed immigration system. But whatever impact Rubio’s stand in favor of the bipartisan compromise bill currently being considered by the Senate has on his presidential prospects, Republicans should be worried about the tenor of the debate that is developing on the right about the legislation.

While I think GOP critics of the immigration reform bill that claim any path to citizenship for illegals undermines the rule of law have a weak case (since the status quo makes a mockery of the rule of law), it is at least an argument based in principle. But if the main theme of those trying to block reform becomes one that centers on the idea that illegals that become citizens will by themselves tip the political balance of the country toward Democrats, as talk show host Steve Deace writes today in Politico, then the problem is not so much Rubio’s as it is the party as a whole. It is a short leap from that assertion to one of general resentment of a national demographic shift in which the percentage of Hispanics has risen. Loose talk along these lines has become endemic in some quarters of the right and it is time for leading Republicans—including those who disagree with Rubio on the reform bill—to stamp it out before it saddles the GOP with liberal attacks that won’t be easily answered by the usual (and generally correct) rejoinder about media bias.

Deace’s main theme is that Rubio is toast in the Republican presidential nomination contest because anti-immigration sentiment is so strong on the right that it renders him an untouchable. We’ll get the conclusive verdict on that prediction three years from now, but I think that assumption is about as reliable as the one many conservatives (including this writer) made two years ago about Mitt Romney’s ObamaCare problem being an obstacle to his nomination in 2012 in a GOP in which Tea Party activists had a huge say in the outcome. Of course, Romney went hard right on immigration, but if Deace thinks that was why he was able to best candidates like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich (both of whom had notably more liberal positions on immigration) then he was watching a different contest than the rest of us.

But far more problematic than Deace’s premature obituary for Rubio’s presidential hopes is his prediction that granting legal status to people who have been in this country for many years will doom the Republican Party in the Southwest. He quotes Texas Representative Steve Stockman as saying “you can kiss my state of Texas goodbye (for Republicans) as well as Arizona and Florida. It will be just like what happened in California after the ’86 amnesty.” The assumption that any growth in the Hispanic vote may benefit Democrats is not unfounded, especially since Democrats have shown themselves to be advocates for immigrant rights while a large portion of the Republican Party has taken positions that are rooted in hostility to immigrants.

You don’t have to be part of the liberal media establishment to understand that if Republicans move from talking about their objections to rewarding people for illegal behavior to yapping about how the increase in Hispanic voters needs to be curbed, this will be interpreted as reflecting bias.

It should be noted that Stockman’s claim that California turned blue because of the 1986 immigration bill (which granted a path to citizenship for illegals but didn’t provide effective border control) is, at best, an exaggeration. It may be that a lot of former illegals became registered Democrats, but the collapse of the GOP in Ronald Reagan’s home base was not purely the result of immigration. But even if we focus solely on racial demographics, the problem was a failure to appeal to legal Hispanics, not the small percentage that became citizens after being illegal.

It is true that, as was the case nationally, Mitt Romney won a majority of white voters in California in last year’s election. The ability of President Obama and other Democrats to get the lion’s share of the African American and Hispanic vote swung the election. That’s a fact that can’t be denied. America is becoming more racially diverse and that is not going to be altered by a bill or political argument. But if the Republican reaction to this is focused more on trying to prevent more Hispanics from eventually becoming voters than on trying to sell their conservative values and ideas to this population, then triumphalist predictions of permanent Democratic rule on the left will turn out to be true.

Forget about what this means for Rubio, whose Hispanic background and support for immigration reform could potentially give Republicans a chance to eat into the Democrats’ advantage in 2016 if he runs for president. This kind of loose talk about preventing Hispanics from voting from people like Deace and Stockman is political poison to every Republican candidate in the country.

What those who purport to speak for conservatives on this issue have to remember is that a strategy based on telling Hispanics to go to the devil is a formula for perpetual Republican defeat. It is true, as they claim, that merely embracing immigration reform by itself will not transform Hispanics from being part of the liberal base into swing voters. But any effort to do so must start there. Deace, Stockman and those who agree with them can claim they aren’t against Hispanics per se, but few Hispanics will believe them if they continue to speak as if they agree with the left that demography is political destiny.

Republicans have a tough but not impossible task ahead of them if they intend to claim a greater share of this increasingly crucial segment of the electorate. As more Hispanics became part of the middle class and reject the idea that their security is grounded in preservation of the excesses of the welfare state, there is plenty of room for GOP growth there, especially if they can produce leaders who can appeal to more than just your average Iowa Republican caucus-goer. But that effort will be doomed if Republicans allow their party to be branded as the one that is willing to do anything to prevent the prospect of more Hispanic voters.

Marco Rubio may not be the future of the Republican Party. But if it is to have a future, Republicans must reject those voices urging them to turn their backs on Hispanics.

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