Immigration Reform: Republican Attitudes Are Changing

Sunday, Republican strategists Carlos Gutierrez and Charles Spies announced the formation of a new Super PAC, Republicans for Immigration Reform. This announcement adds a layer of decisive action to a rapidly growing sentiment in the GOP that, in the wake of the failed Romney campaign, the Republican Party must change its tune when it comes to immigration policy. “We are serious” said Gutierrez, who led the Romney campaign’s Latino outreach initiative. “And we are going to push the debates on immigration reform to a place where I believe the Republican Party should be in the 21st century.”

Gutierrez and Spies, founder of the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future, have not yet announced a fundraising goal, but given the number of conservative voices who have already voiced a changing opinion since Obama’s reelection, it is likely that the new initiative will be met with support – and with open wallets. Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity, who staunchly opposed immigration reform not too long ago, has recently said that his stance on the matter has "evolved." Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated to the press that he would be behind comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

Of course, election numbers are a key reason for this not-so-subtle attitude shift. Exit polls had Latinos voting 71% Obama and 27% Romney, an improvement from their already exceedingly high showing for Democrats in 2008, when Obama captured 67% of the Latino vote and McCain won 31%.

Indeed, the demographic landscape of the United States makes the Republican Party’s reliance on white voter turnout increasingly unstable. In just the last four years, the number of registered Latinos has grown to 12.2 million, up 26% and comprising nearly 9% of the national electorate. And looking at the youth vote, the growing numbers of Hispanic millennials in the U.S – each month approximately 50,000 Hispanic young people turn 18 – makes it imperative for the GOP to tap into this burgeoning voting bloc to regain surer footing in swing states.

GOP support for immigration reform is not a foreign concept. Surely, hindsight vision has Romney strategists kicking themselves for pulling Romney so sharply right after his win in the primaries instead of taking a more centrist approach. As Obama garnered support when he announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in July, Romney, who had previously voiced interest in providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, supported a hard line against any so-called amnesty policies and was in favor of “self-deportation.” In lieu of taking an ultra-conservative approach post-primary, Romney could have stayed moderate on immigration with the likes of Senators Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and John McCain (R-Ariz.), casting himself, like them, as someone willing to find a creative solution to a growing problem. Suggesting that the roughly 11 million undocumented illegal aliens in the U.S. simply deport themselves and apply for legal entrance to the U.S. distanced him and the party from Latino voters.

Looking forward, for the GOP to garner Hispanic support, conservative opinion leaders must now distance the party from Romney and the election, as they have already begun to do. Further, there must be considerable give in Congress when it comes to Obama’s immigration reform plan.

Obama recently assured the press that immigration is a top priority after his upcoming inauguration. He stressed particular concern for creating a pathway for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status as well as fortifying his Deferred Action plan through the passage of a bill. If Republicans get wise, they will support some form of these measures, along with Obama’s universally appealing aim to strengthen border security, and they will do so without too much hemming and hawing.

Ultimately, getting rid of the current immigration-related chasm between the right and the left will reap far more good than harm for the GOP. Along with increasing the tax base and keeping more money in the U.S. – a positive for both parties – taking away the polarizing question of legalization leaves conservatives with a voter base that shares a lot of the same conservative values and religious affiliations. Indeed, carefully tapping into this as of yet largely out of reach demographic has to potential reinvigorate the GOP and create enormous problems for any Democratic candidate come 2016. But it is up to the folks in Washington (and friends of the new Super PAC) to give this shift a chance.