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Harsh Talk: The G.O.P.’s Immigration Problem

151116_r27312illuweb-690x355-1446851506Three years ago, after the reelection of Barack Obama, a rueful Republican National Committee launched an inquiry into where the Party had gone wrong. Researchers for the Growth & Opportunity Project contacted more than twenty-six hundred people—voters, officeholders, Party operatives—conducted focus groups, and took polls around the country. The resulting report is a bracingly forthright piece of self-criticism that took the G.O.P. to task for turning off young voters, minorities, and women. A key finding was that candidates needed to curb the harsh talk about immigration. Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation” was loser rhetoric. Making people feel that “a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States” was poor politics. The report offered one specific policy recommendation: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies.”


None of the current Republican Presidential hopefuls seem to have taken that counsel to heart. Donald Trump, the front-runner, wouldn’t, of course. “The Hispanics love me,” he claims, despite the fact that he proposes building a wall on the Mexican border to keep out people he equates with “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.” Ben Carson takes issue with Trump’s stance, sort of. “It sounds really cool, you know, ‘Let’s just round them all up and send them back,’ ” he said. But it would cost too much, so he advocates deploying armed drones at the border.

Some Republicans are hoping that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who rose to third and fourth place following last month’s debate in Boulder—or even Jeb Bush, in fifth—can help this situation. Rubio’s parents were born in Cuba, as was Cruz’s father. But Cruz, a Tea Party conservative and a Southern Baptist, isn’t exactly an avatar of Latino cultural identity. When he does embrace that identity, it tends to be awkward, as when he told a meeting of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last spring, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hispanic panhandler. And the reason is in our community it would be shameful to be begging on the street.” Rubio is at ease invoking the experience of his immigrant parents—his father was a bartender, his mother a maid—and sometimes gives interviews in Spanish, though he has had to defend the practice against attacks from Trump. Bush has a bicultural family. But all three have moved to the unwelcoming right on immigration.


In 2013, Rubio sponsored a bipartisan bill to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living here, but he renounced it and now says that we “can’t even have a conversation” about the fate of the undocumented until the borders are secured. Cruz has endorsed eliminating automatic birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to undocumented parents. Bush is still willing to grant citizenship to some undocumented immigrants, if they meet a long list of conditions. But this summer he released a six-point plan that stresses the need for a military-style fortification of the border.


All three also differ with majorities of Latino voters on other issues. Most Latino voters support stricter gun control and a higher minimum wage, and most say that climate change matters to them personally and that the federal government needs to act on it. Moreover, any assumption that Latino voters—a very diverse group—can be relied upon to choose Latino candidates regardless of their positions is not supported by evidence. In Texas in 2012, when Cruz ran for the Senate, about sixty per cent of the Latino vote went to his opponent, a white Democrat.


In the primary season candidates often say things that make trouble for their party in the general election. We’re likely to see an extreme version of that phenomenon this time, above all in battleground states like Colorado, Nevada, and North Carolina, where the winner will need to carry the minority vote. Trump’s anti-immigrant sloganeering and his rivals’ scramble to keep up with it won’t be easy to forget. In 2012, Romney got just twenty-three per cent of the Latino vote. In 2016, the Republican candidate will need to get twice that, according to a recent analysis made by the political scientists David Damore and Matt Barreto. That’s because the Latino share of the electorate has been growing. By 2050, the Latino population in the U.S. is projected to be twenty-nine per cent, up from seventeen per cent today. Republican candidates have often told themselves they have more of a chance of winning Hispanic voters than black voters, finding common ground on social issues. “Republicans often seem to think if they could just get beyond immigration issues there’d be all kinds of opportunities for them with Latino voters,” John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, says. “That’s a little like saying if we could just get beyond civil rights we’d be good with black voters.”

Last month, at a candidates’ forum in Plano, Texas, the conservative activist Ralph Reed proposed a strategy that ignores the issue altogether: Republicans should just focus on the evangelical vote, which, he claimed, is “larger than the African-American vote, the Latino vote, the feminist vote, the gay vote, and the union vote combined.” He was resurrecting a popular G.O.P. theory that President Obama was reëlected only because millions of conservative, and especially evangelical, voters went “missing” in 2012. All the 2016 Republican nominee has to do is get those voters to return to the polls. Green finds the “missing” theory unlikely—evangelicals tend to be motivated, reliable voters—and Karl Rove himself dismissed it in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “The Myth of the Stay-at-Home Republicans.” But the strategy seems particularly problematic in its willingness to dismiss whole segments of the population—precisely what the 2012 postmortem advised against.


Before the start of last month’s debate, representatives from conservative Latino groups gathered in Boulder to issue some warnings about what would happen if the Party didn’t distance itself from extreme immigration politics. Their message was of a piece with the 2012 report, but even more blunt. Rosario Marin, who served as the U.S. Treasurer under President George W. Bush, said, “Don’t expect us to come to your side during the general election. You are not with us now, we will not be with you then. You don’t have our vote now, you won’t have it then. You insult us now, we will be deaf to you then.” In the meantime—and no doubt especially at next month’s debate in Nevada, a state that is nearly thirty per cent Latino—they will be listening carefully.

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