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Memo to the GOP:  Courting Latino Voters Requires a Real Conversion on Immigration Reform

Memo to the GOP:  Courting Latino Voters Requires a Real Conversion on Immigration Reform

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This week, the Republican-backed Hispanic Leadership Network is hosting a conference in South Florida to “provide a unique opportunity for center-right leaders to speak with—and more importantly listen to—the Hispanic community,” according to conference co-chair Jeb Bush. 

The question on the minds of many political observers is this: will the GOP finally hear what Latino voters have to say?  Over the last three elections, Latino voters have been loud and clear in their message to the GOP.  They voted increasingly Democratic in the last three cycles in large part because the Republican Party embraced an anti-immigrant, anti-Latino agenda.  Latino voters were a key factor in the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama’s win in 2008, and they saved the Senate for the Democrats in 2010.

With new Census figures showing that Latino political power is still on the rise, it’s hard to imagine the Republican Party winning the presidency or a number of House and Senate races in 2012 without their votes.  But to do so, GOP leaders need to make a clean break from their recent past.  They can’t be the party of Proposition 187, the Sensenbrenner bill, Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law, Sharron Angle’s anti-Latino campaign ads, Steve King’s electric fence, Lamar Smith’s “deport ‘em with a smile” proposals, and the defeat of the DREAM Act and still win a respectable share of Latino votes.  They need more than conversation with Latinos; they need a conversion on the issue of immigration reform.

Right now, Republican leadership is stuck in a deep rut of denial and inflexibility.  They seem to think that kinder, gentler rhetoric and reaching out on “common values”—tied to the same anti-immigrant policies—will do the trick.  For example, Republican House leaders took the chairman’s gavel away from Rep. Steve King, who was slated to become the House Immigration Subcommittee Chair.  But they installed the equally anti-immigrant Rep. Elton Gallegly in his place, and the most notorious opponent of immigrants in Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith, is still in charge of the Judiciary Committee.

And according to the public agenda for the Hispanic Leadership Network conference, the only immigration panel is about border control, and the introductory speaker is Senator John Cornyn.  Cornyn may talk a good game about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but every time it’s mattered he has voted the wrong way. 

Unless the Republican Party provides a real alternative, Cornyn, Smith, Gallegly, and King will be the Party’s faces on immigration to millions of Latino voters heading into the 2012 elections.  This would be a disaster for the GOP and for the country, because we need a real solution to the broken immigration system.  Following are some of the lessons the Republican Party needs to learn before the 2012 elections if it wants to show Latino voters that they are welcome in the GOP, and general voters that they are the party of solutions—not just sound bites.

The illegal immigration wedge strategy has been a colossal failure.  As in 2006 and 2008, in 2010 the illegal immigration wedge strategy simply did not work—outside of some Republican primaries.  Despite national attention to the issue, voters turned out in 2010 because of other issues, not immigration.  In fact, the only group really galvanized by immigration was Latino voters, who made a big difference in key races.  For example:

Tacking right on immigration cost Bill McCollum the nomination for governor in the Florida Republican primary, due to depressed turnout in Latino-heavy areas.
Her fumbling hypocrisy on the immigration issue also marked the turning point in Republican Meg Whitman’s losing campaign for governor of California.

In the most-anticipated match-up of the 2010 cycle, Sharron Angle of Nevada bet the farm on her anti-immigrant wedge strategy and lost handily.  Majority Leader Harry Reid won the Latino vote 90 to 8.  According to analysis by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Reid also did surprisingly well among Republicans.  Lesson number one: Latino voters don’t like to be called criminals and gang-bangers in campaign commercials.  Lesson number two: the polls are right, and overall voters do support comprehensive immigration reform.

The Latino firewall in the West helped keep the Senate in Democratic hands, stopping the Republican wave at the Rockies.  In addition to Reid, Sens. Boxer (CA), Bennet (CO), and Murray (WA) all won against tough challengers with strong support from Latino voters.

Sixty percent of Latinos said immigration was either the most important issue or one of the most important issues in their decision to vote and who to vote for last year.  Only 14% said it was not a factor. 
The pro-immigration movement is getting stronger ever year, and investing more in voter education and turnout.  In 2010, unions and immigrant advocates invested heavily in voter mobilization and ad campaigns designed to turn out Latino, Asian, and immigrant voters.  Organizing for the 2012 elections is already underway, and the number of eligible voters who care about immigration will continue to grow.  By contrast, the other side is represented by a few well-organized groups with ties to white supremacists.  They can mobilize on the Internet but have almost no ability to influence election outcomes.

The DREAM Act debate was a defining moment.  The DREAM Act effort last fall showed how the pro-reform movement has grown.  Leaders from the military, education, religious, law enforcement, civil rights, labor, business and other communities spoke up in favor of the bill.  DREAM supporters ran six figure ad campaigns targeting key Senators, and mobilized constituents to contact Congress like never before.  For the first time ever, DREAM supporters tied or beat the anti-immigrant groups in phone calls to Congress.  Opponents of the DREAM Act began to tell their allies to lie and pretend they were constituents to keep up.

Pro-DREAM advocates won the debate, and a triple majority in the House, Senate, and court of public opinion.  Unfortunately, only three brave Republicans supported the bill in the Senate, and the DREAM Act fell five votes short of the sixty needed to become law.  As Linda Chavez warned her fellow Party leaders, this was a huge political mistake.  The Senate vote was covered live by both Telemundo and Univision, and groups like NCLR are already working to make sure Latino voters remember who stood with and against their children in this debate.

It is impossible for Republicans to keep throwing red meat to the states and the restrictionists and still court Latino voters.  Last week, a group of Republican state legislators came to Washington, to announce their plan to pass state laws that undermine the Constitution in hopes of changing the way our country bestows citizenship on newborn babies.  The same day, House Immigration Subcommittee Vice-Chair Rep. Steve King (R-IA) announced his companion legislation.  Spanish language media has been reporting the story in real time.  The Republican-led effort to take U.S. citizenship from (mostly) Latino babies, combined with Republican support for Arizona copycat laws and Republican blockage of the DREAM Act last year, is a dangerous combination that will galvanize Latino voters again in 2012 unless adults in the Republican Party stand up and speak up.   

Policymakers can connect with Latino voters and the general electorate by supporting comprehensive immigration reform.  The same cannot be said about a deportation-only approach.  Immigration is one of the most misunderstood political issues of our time.  Republicans hear voter frustration with the broken immigration system, and interpret it as anti-immigrant sentiment.  But what voters are angry about is the fact that Washington hasn’t solved the problem, and what they want is for the government to make everyone (workers and employers) pay their fair share of taxes.  That is why every major public poll on the topic, including polling in swing states, shows that a majority of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform.

Fully 76% of voters believe that deporting all undocumented immigrants in the country is unrealistic.  Even voters who align with the Tea Party or approve of the Arizona immigration law support comprehensive reform.  While voters want policies that are tough at the border, they also want real, practical solutions—not empty rhetoric.

Survey after survey has also shown that Latino voters are strongly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and strongly opposed to deportation-only approaches.  In fact, in key 2010 match-ups pitting a Latino candidate who opposed comprehensive immigration reform against a non-Latino who supported it, most Latinos voted for the immigration reform supporter.  The one exception was the Florida Senate race, where Marco Rubio benefited from a compelling biography, a more conservative Latino electorate, and his opponents’ failure to call out his conservative immigration stances taken during the primary.

The GOP has no more running room on immigration.  They have boxed themselves in with Latino voters, and the only way out is for some adults in the party to step up and lead the Republican Party—and the nation—in a new direction. We will be watching the Hispanic Leadership Network conference with great interest, to see if anyone emerges to guide the Party in a new direction.