Immigration reform: Can the GOP really win Hispanic votes with a flip-flop?

Republicans are beginning to craft legislation around an idea that seemed laughable before last week’s election: immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. Critics say the gambit may not work.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Aida Castillo places a sticker on her blouse indicating that she had voted during the early voting period, Oct. 20, in Las Vegas. In the heavily-Hispanic neighborhoods of Las Vegas, unemployment is high and home values are down.

Before Republicans tackle wholeheartedly any comprehensive immigration reform, many lawmakers will probably have to be convinced of one thing: Will it actually win them Hispanic votes?

More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters chose President Obama last week, confirming his preelection prediction that Republicans couldn’t win the presidency with xenophobic zeal that alienates Hispanics or with out-of-touch proposals such as Mitt Romney’s suggestion that illegal immigrants opt for “self-deportation.”

Since Election Day, much has been said about a need for the GOP to build new demographic coalitions. And so Republican lawmakers are now beginning to draft the outlines of immigration reform. That outline could become the first significant piece of border legislation since the failure in 2006 of a Bush-sponsored package.

On Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said that the Senate has already reopened bipartisan negotiations on immigration reform and key players have already agreed to a “detailed blueprint” based on the idea that “most Americans are for legal immigration, but very much against illegal immigration.”

And some Republicans, in addition to Democratic counterparts, are considering reforms that would give illegal immigrants a defined path to citizenship. If the Department of Homeland Security can manage to secure the borders to lawmakers’ satisfaction, illegal immigrants could “come out of the shadows, get biometrically identified, start paying taxes, [and] pay a fine for the law they broke,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Senator Graham continued, “They can’t stay unless they learn our language, and they have to get in the back of the line before they can become citizens. They can’t cut in front of the line regarding people who are doing it right, and it can take over a decade to get their green card.”

But even with a GOP-sanctioned immigration reform, more Hispanics would not necessarily vote Republican. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department voting rights attorney, has argued forcefully that compromising on immigration may seem logical, and may even be the right thing to do, but is not likely to lead to any broad shifts in the Hispanic vote.

“Those calling for outreach are only half right,” he writes on the PJ Media conservative news and commentary site. “Something needs to be done, but they naively prescribe the mistakes of the past that will forever alter the demographic character of America, without altering the vote totals for the GOP.”

Mr. Adams is basing his logic on the fact that civil rights groups successfully lobbied President Bush in 2006 to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to then only accuse him of being an “enemy of minority rights.”

On the other hand, Mr. Bush’s outreach to Hispanics in the 2004 campaign earned him 44 percent of the Hispanic vote (compared with Mr. Romney’s 27 percent). While debate has raged for years about the actual importance of the Hispanic vote, the 2004 election was the only time in the past six presidential cycles when a Republican presidential candidate won the national popular vote.

Moreover, while Hispanics on the whole trend Democrat in their view of the role of government, they tend to be culturally and socially conservative. In past elections in major battlegrounds like Florida, they’ve chosen pragmatism over partisanship in deciding who should earn their vote.

For example, a majority of non-Cuban Hispanics along Florida’s heavily populated Interstate 4 corridor supported Al Gore for president in 2000 and two years later voted in the majority for a Republican governor, Jeb Bush.

Whatever the case, many Republicans will continue to fight any amnesty package, and they’ve already warned the GOP leadership to not get too far ahead of its caucus.

“Those who see in Hispanics a potential bloc of socially conservative voters should consider that polls consistently find blacks to be slightly more anti-abortion than whites, but they are not exactly lining up behind Rick Santorum,” write the editors of the conservative National Review magazine.

Still, for others, an about-face on immigration by the Republican leadership is an acknowledgement of an even greater conundrum for the GOP: that it may no longer be able to rely on the white Christian coalition to overcome the Democrats’ more egalitarian electoral base.

“This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever,” writes the journalist David Simon on his blog, the Audacity of Despair. “No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas.”

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