Republicans and Latino Voters: Has the GOP Shifted on Immigration Reform?

Some blamed losses in the fall on losing support from Latino voters, among other groups.

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Another D.C.-based group, The American Cause, chaired by Pat Buchanan, released a similarly defiant study this week arguing that the GOP needs to get tougher on immigration, not softer. The report, "Immigration and the 2008 Republican Defeat," which analyzes all of the Republican losses in 2008 House races, concludes that Republicans lost because they supported "amnesty" for illegal immigrations, while Democrats emphasized border security—a stance that proved popular with voters.

The Buchanan group, which describes itself as a promoter of "economic patriotism," offers a bleak prognosis for Republicans. Since the party has never won a majority of the Latino vote, it concludes, Republicans should be focusing their effort not on "reforming" immigration policy, but on stopping mass immigration altogether. "The Demographic changes made by mass immigration have been disastrous to Republicans and will be fatal if not halted," says a press release announcing the report, which urges the GOP to solidify its political base, not expand it. "Whatever gains, if any, pandering to Hispanics gives is greatly outweighed by loss of the White vote, which is more important."

Political observers on both sides of the aisle, meanwhile, were struck not just by the sudden resurgence of an issue that has spent several years off the political stage—but by its surprisingly shrill tones. Among some conservative groups, anti-immigrant sentiment is certainly alive and well. "Their whole political theory has been not to win the people in the middle but to win the hard-core Republican base," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. These new studies, he says, reflect a fundamental split in the Republican Party that the election did nothing to resolve. "You have a growing number of thinkers and elders in the party saying 'We're going the wrong way,'" says Sharry. "But you have almost no one in the rank-and-file saying that."

It's no accident that the issue of immigration is flaring up again, of course. During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year as president, and political observers believe legislation could move to Capitol Hill again as soon as this fall. "The reason they're pushing back is they realize this election has been a game-changer on immigration," says Sharry. "The sleeping giant awoke."

Three million new Latino voters went to the ballot box this fall, redrawing the electoral map—and leaving many analysts wondering how Republicans can imagine a way forward, politically, that does not include Latino voters, and, by extension, immigration reform.

Many experts scoff at the argument made in the two new reports that immigration policy is somehow not important to Latinos. Though Hispanics, in the last year, have certainly rated the economy and jobs as two of their top concerns, polls show that immigration is never far from their minds. Nearly 90 percent of Latino voters in one poll conducted after the election said immigration was either "somewhat important" or "very important" to them.

There is abundant evidence, meanwhile, that Latino voters are moving away from Republicans, and toward Democrats, largely because of the GOP's association with anti-immigration hard-liners. More than 11 million Latinos voted in the election this fall, up from only 7.6 million in 2004. They proved decisive not just in heavily Latino swing states like Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada but also in previously solid red states like Indiana, where Obama won by a margin of only about 25,000 votes—largely because he dominated McCain among recent Latino immigrants.

The political calculus—for Latino groups, and for many moderate Republicans—seems clear. "There will be political consequences for our leaders who do not understand that we are sending a strong message through that turnout," Janet Murguía, president of the advocacy group National Council of La Raza, said earlier this month.

The question, now, is whether GOP leaders hear that message—and how they decide to act on it.