Immigration Reform: The GOP Must Take These Steps on Immigration to Win Over Latinos

In the 2012 election, Latinos were an important force in securing a victory for Barack Obama. Latinos supported the president by a stunning margin, with 71% favoring him over Mitt Romney’s 24%. Furthermore, this demographic played a key role in tipping the balance in at least three key swing states: Colorado, Florida, and Ohio. Whatever campaign strategy the Republicans were using to court Latino votes is clearly in need of some reworking.

Obama failed to deliver comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in his first term, as he had claimed he would. Yet Obama played it smart in the run-up to the election, announcing a measure in June, 2012 to create provisional pathways to citizenship for young undocumented migrants, brought here as children, should they enroll in higher education or enlist in the military.

In comparison, the Republican strategy seemed a bit confused. At times, there was mention of significantly harsher immigration enforcement. Romney and other Republicans spoke often of “self-deportation,” the optimal policy being to make access to employment, housing, or services so difficult that immigrants would leave “voluntarily.” Harsh state level enforcement measures, such as those proposed in Arizona and ultimately shot down as unconstitutional, were touted by the Republican presidential candidates. Both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney held them up as a model to which the federal government ought to aspire.

However, such an approach left a bad taste in the mouth of many Latinos, even those who had been in the country for generations and held little positive sentiment for migrants in the country illegally. The measures seemed inhumane, and too likely to blow back on all Latinos.

Still other Republican strategists pinned their hopes on religion and values issues, arguing that the Republican stance on issues such abortion or same-sex marriage was more likely to resonate with Latinos, a group more Catholic and more devout than other ethnic groups. Tom Brokaw pondered why Latinos, a “natural constituent” of the Republican Party, were so overwhelmingly in favor of Obama.

Here again, we run into the issue of changing and shifting demographics among the Latino population, particularly among younger generations. Numerous reports have suggested that these trends are changing, and larger numbers of Latinos are either less devout and less socially conservative. We see this in public opinion studies showing that Latinos support access to abortion, favor gay rights, and are increasingly willing to disagree with their religious leaders on contentious political issues.

What this adds up to is that Republicans have proved remarkably ineffective at securing any sort of electoral foothold among Latinos. Furthermore, they seem not to understand the population they’re trying to win over. Absent a stunning change in either Latino demographic trends or a rethinking of Republican strategy, they can look forward to more stinging election losses at the hands of Latinos in the years to come. The demographics are unlikely to change. What can the Republicans do to reconfigure their strategy? 

First, Republican legislators can work alongside Democrats to pass the DREAM Act legislation as quickly as possible. This would create pathways to citizenship for deserving young people who commit to higher education or military service. Furthermore, numerous prominent Republicans such as John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have supported the legislation in the past, only withdrawing their support as part of the Republican congressional effort to hamstring Obama’s policy agenda. Republicans should only continue such obstruction if they wish to further alienate Latinos.

Second, Republican legislators will need to engage meaningfully in bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform. This issue is now at the top of Obama’s agenda for the second term. This legislation needs to include pathways to citizenship for those here illegally in addition to enhanced border enforcement.

The oft-repeated claim that Obama is soft on immigration enforcement is factually misleading and Latinos know it. Obama’s rate of deportations vastly outstrips that of former President George W. Bush. As of July 2012, Obama had deported 1.4 million individuals, compared to the 2 million Bush deported over his full, two-term presidency. Latinos will not stand for reform which favors harsh enforcement over pathways to citizenship, as the massive 2006 pro-immigration protests have shown us. If Republicans want to have any hopes of making inroads with Latino voters they have to favor a balanced approach.

Lastly, Republicans need to begin showing that they respect and understand Latinos. Their support for draconian immigration enforcement policies despite the unease they create within Latino communities shows their misunderstanding of the attitudes and opinions of Latinos. Their strategies have rested upon mischaracterizations of the social and cultural dynamics of this population, and their reliance upon decades-old generalizations. These strategies show that they haven’t been attentive enough to the ways in which this dynamic group is growing, but also evolving.

This last strategy will be the hardest of all. It involves not merely “doing” but listening and understanding. It will likely involve prominent Republicans speaking forthrightly about the ways in which they have thus far failed to comprehend the issues most important to Latino voters. The population of Latino voters is projected to double by 2030. If the Republicans fail to take this initial and important step as soon as possible, they will have written themselves out of any role in American politics in the decades to come.

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Robert Glover

Robert Glover is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Political Science at the University of Maine. His primary research areas of interest are democratic theory, human rights, international relations theory, and the politics of immigration. Prior to coming to UMaine, Rob was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the interdisciplinary Justice Studies program at James Madison University. His current research addresses the contemporary politics of immigration and citizenship with a focus on the issues of democratic legitimacy and non-citizen activism. In addition, Rob is co-editing a book which examines the use of “non-traditional” media such as film, literature, music, and social media to teach students about core political questions and ideas. His recent research has been featured in journals such as Political Studies, Philosophy & Social Criticism, PS: Political Science & Politics, Honors in Practice, The Journal of Political Science Education, and Politics, History & International Relations.

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