As Congress continues to punt on the immigration issue, a group of prominent GOP leaders urged them to take up comprehensive immigration as a way to win votes in the nation’s burgeoning Hispanic electorate.
"(Hispanics) will be the swing voters as they are today in the swing states. If you want to elect a center-right president of the United States, it seems to me you should be concerned about places like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Texas, places where but for the Hispanic vote, elections are won and lost," said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who co-chaired the conference organized by the new Hispanic Leadership Network, the Associated Press reported Friday.
The numbers bear him out. Hispanics are now the nation’s largest single minority block and they wield increasing power in, for the GOP, the electorally critical states in the Southwest and, more and more, the Rocky Mountain West. [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about immigration.]
In part the GOP’s dilemma is the result of aggressive messaging by the Democrats, who equate tough talk against illegal immigration with anti-Hispanic sentiments. It is also true that many Republicans talk about the issue indelicately and in ways that are open to misrepresentation and misunderstanding, creating an atmosphere of distrust in the nation’s Latino community.
To some, especially activists on the right, the call for comprehensive immigration reform is perceived as an argument for amnesty, the idea that estimated 12 million people who are in the United States illegally should be put on the fast track to citizenship, in essence rewarding them for jumping the line. But “What part of illegal don’t you understand” is not a rational basis for formulating public policy.
The challenge ahead, and it is a difficult needle to thread, is to find ways to embrace those who want to come to the United States in order to pursue a better life for themselves and their children in a way that does not fly in the face of existing law.
The political consequences of failing to address the immigration issue could, for the GOP, be devastating. The party is currently competitive in the battle for Hispanic votes but it is a fight they could very easily lose--and not just by failing to tone down the rhetoric. It may be that they need to eschew comprehensive reform in favor of a bold and tough effort to increase security on the nation’s southern and northern borders, both of which seem to be relatively porous. In effect locking “the golden door” before taking up the much tougher task of dealing with the immigrants who are already here illegally--and who do not necessarily come from Latin America.
Being tagged as “the anti-immigrant party” hurt the GOP, especially in the nation’s urban centers, during the years when immigrants were primarily Catholics coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. It took many years, and a Cold War, before it could even begin to turn that around. And it may be, in a move that some Republicans and many Democrats may find unpalatable, but for different reasons, that the course ahead may require an increase in national quotas, especially for high-income and highly skilled workers who, for one reason or another, believe that the road to greater opportunity leads them out of their home country and into the United States.
At the same time, the GOP would be wise to take up the issue of "integration" at the same time it talks about “immigration”--which means doing more to improve the quality of public education and to reinforce the idea, popularized by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that English is the common language of the “American civilization.” Under the guise of showing respect for ethnic cultures, the linguistic Balkanization of the United States actually works to drive people apart and keep them from fulfilling the promise of the America Dream. It would certainly make the idea of comprehensive reform in a post-border security environment more political palatable to conservatives who find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place.