At debate, tough immigration talk shows GOP challenge in winning Latino votes

In discussing immigration at the GOP debate, the candidates emphasized border security – an appeal to the Republican base that may alienate the growing Latino vote.

John Minchillo/AP
Republican presidential candidates from left, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland.

On the divisive issue of immigration, the tone at Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate ranged from compassionate (Jeb Bush) to harsh (Donald Trump). But no matter the tone – or the policy – the eventual GOP nominee will have a very tough time winning crucial Latino votes in the general election.

When it comes to the competing demands of the primary season and general election, perhaps no other issue disadvantages Republicans more than immigration. On Thursday night, the candidates emphasized border security – an appeal to the Republican base. No one advocated a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers in America, which is favored by Latino voters.

“Most of the candidates are trying to avoid what to do with the 11 or 12 million who are here, mostly because Republicans want border security,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant based in Texas. “This is going to be a major issue in the primary and the general.”

That was clear from Thursday night, in which Chris Wallace, one of the Fox News moderators, questioned six of the 10 candidates about immigration.

Mr. Bush, Florida’s former governor, stood by his previous comment that immigration – including illegal immigration – is “an act of love,” saying that people come to the United States to provide for their families. He then quickly outlined his plan to stem the illegal flow, ending with a path to “earned legal status” for those already in the country.

If legal status is deemed “amnesty” by some conservatives, eventual citizenship is considered even worse because it rewards those who broke the law with the highest rights under the law.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin was asked to explain why he walked back his support for a path to citizenship. He answered simply, “because I listened to the American people.”

That’s what Mr. Trump says he’s doing, telling Mr. Wallace that immigration “was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up at my announcement.”

The reality TV star and real estate mogul caused an uproar when he said during the announcement of his candidacy in June that Mexico is sending rapists, drugs, and crime across the US border through illegal immigration. On Thursday, he defended his "tell-it-like-it-is" comments on this and other subjects.

“We don’t have time for tone,” he said. “We’ve got to get out and get the job done.” In this case, he said, quickly build a wall at the border, but give it a “big, beautiful door” for legal entrants.

Trump’s brash tone on immigration helped shoot him to the top of the crowded GOP field, but that will come at a cost if he were to become the nominee.

In July, a Univision poll found that 79 percent of Hispanic voters found Trump’s comments at his announcement offensive, and 71 hold an unfavorable view of him.

Republicans warned against an off-putting tone on immigration in their “autopsy” of their failed presidential bid in 2012. They pointed to the shrinking GOP share of the Latino vote: 40 percent with George W. Bush, 31 percent with John McCain, and 27 percent with Mitt Romney.

“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the report said.

It's not just tone, but also the GOP approach to immigration reform that turns off Hispanic voters, according to Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions, an opinion research firm.

For instance, Bush’s backing of a path to “legal status” could be preferable to Latinos if it were a choice between that and nothing, she says. But Hillary Clinton, the lead Democratic candidate, offers a better deal for Latinos, the citizenship choice. In the Univision poll, she would win 64 percent of Hispanic voters in a matchup with Bush.

As for the enforcement-first policy stressed by the GOP candidates, “that doesn’t address the sticking point for Latinos,” Ms. Manzano says. Latinos are as opposed to criminals as anyone else, she says. “The sticking point for Latino voters ... is what to do with the millions who are here over a decade and are part of families and communities.”

At the debate Thursday, several candidates supported Trump’s underlying message, if not his rhetoric. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said, “We need to take lessons from Donald Trump. He’s hitting a nerve in this country.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida contradicted Trump on the facts (it’s mostly Central Americans, not Mexicans, who are here illegally, he said), but he agreed with the sentiment: “People are frustrated.” They feel they’re being taken advantage of.

Congress has yet to fix the problems. In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill – which Senator Rubio helped broker but which he now views as going too far. The House never took it up.

Bipartisan reform will not happen before the next election, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said Thursday before the debate.

That, too, is not lost on Latino voters. Immigration reform is their chief demand, though not their only one. They put the blame for failure squarely on the shoulders of Republicans.

And they put Republicans in a dilemma, says Manzano. The enthusiastic support for Trump “suggests that it will be very difficult to play to both the Republican primary base and the general electorate.”

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