Mexican Standoff

Republicans have a historic chance to win the Hispanic vote. They're shooting themselves in the foot.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For all the talk in recent Republican debates about Israel and Iran, it’s a third "I" that will likely have the more significant impact on the 2012 election — immigration (particularly of the illegal variety). For conservative activists, it is one of the issues that shapes their anger toward President Barack Obama. But whatever you think of the policy, it’s the politics that matter — and immigration is one of the key reasons Obama is likely to once again decisively win the nation’s Hispanic vote.

That represents an odd turn of events. Obama’s track record on immigration has hardly been a boon for Hispanics. Since taking office, enforcement of immigration laws has significantly ramped up. In all, more than 1.1 million illegal residents have been deported since Obama took office, the highest level of deportations in 60 years. Last year alone, 400,000 illegal immigrants were sent home — a record high. In fact, Obama is on pace to deport more illegal immigrants in one term than the previous president did in two.

At the same time, the undocumented population has declined dramatically — from more than 12 million in 2007 to just over 11 million today (and it’s not because the U.S. government is suddenly handing over tons of green cards). Each year, roughly 150,000 illegal immigrants enter the country from Mexico — during the first half of the past decade it was around 500,000 a year. While this drop is largely the result of poor economic prospects in the United States and better economic opportunities in Mexico, increased deportations has certainly done its part. And don’t think these developments aren’t being felt within the Hispanic community.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one in four Hispanics either know someone who has been deported or is in removal proceedings — and they overwhelmingly disapprove of the president’s enforcement policies. So if anything, the Republican opposition to the president’s immigration stance shouldn’t be that he’s been too soft — but his policies are too harsh and do too little to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. But you’re unlikely to hear very much of that message on the campaign trail this year.

While Obama recently raised the issue of immigration reform in his State of the Union address, he has had little success in crafting a legislative path to reform (like many of his first term initiatives, it crashed on the shoals of Republican obstructionism). Rather, the instrumental effect of his policies has been to make life much more difficult for illegal immigrants.

Still, none of this has stopped the remaining Republican candidates from falling over themselves to blast the president’s soft stance. Each of them have pledged that if they are elected president, the border will be more secure, enforcement will be stepped up, and citizenship for illegal immigrants will not be part of the equation. The immigration issue has become such a lightning rod in the GOP that it is now practically conventional political wisdom that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign was short-circuited by his defense of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants and his charge of "heartlessness" against those opposed to such a policy.

How does one explain this divide between rhetoric and reality? In an important new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Harvard political sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson argue that the anti-immigrant narrative is being driven, in large measure, by the views of the Republican base — and in particular the Tea Party wing. According to a comprehensive 2010 national poll, illegal immigration is considered a "very serious" issue for an extraordinary 82 percent of Tea Partiers.

Traditionally, concerns about immigration, particularly in times of economic distress, tend to focus on the impact of newcomers "taking jobs" from native-born residents or are oriented around racial animus. While that is certainly a factor in Tea Party attitudes, there may be other symbolic and moral factors at work. According to Skocpol and Williamson (who interviewed countless members of the Tea Party), the major concern over immigration was related less to jobs and more to the issue of fairness, particularly "the costly use of government funds and services by illegal immigrants. Tea Party members base their moral condemnation on the fact that these are ‘lawbreakers’ who crossed the border without permission and thus are using American resources unfairly."

"In large immigration states versus small immigration states, the attitude was the same among Tea Partiers," said Skocpol when I spoke to her last week. This is reflected in recent tough anti-immigration measures that have been pushed by Republicans in states on the frontlines of illegal immigration, like Arizona — as well as in places where the issue is less pressing, like South Carolina and Alabama. Even in Massachusetts, says Skocpol, the immigration issue was a top concern among the Tea Partiers — even though the state doesn’t have a serious illegal-immigrant problem.

The fear of illegal immigration, it turns out, has less to do with proximity than resource allocation. Interviewees, said Skocpol, became particularly "emotional" when they were talking about illegal immigrants using government services that "hard-working Americans" have to pay for. Many were convinced that illegal immigrants were benefiting directly from the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare (something that isn’t true) or were receiving Social Security benefits (also untrue). In reality, illegal immigrants are actually punished by a system into which they often must pay Social Security taxes and receive nothing in return. The fears, said Skocpol, were particularly acute among older Tea Partiers — many of whom were convinced that the money going to provide services for hordes of illegal immigrants would mean reduced Medicare benefits.

Now, one might assume that concerns over immigration are also animated by racial animus — after all, Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white and the movement, as a whole, tends to demonstrate more racially intolerant views than the rest of the population. But this is perhaps a bit simplistic. Indeed, their fears of immigration are influenced as much by the changing nature of American society. Over the last several decades, the populace as a whole has become far more "colorful" than any point in American history. By one estimate racial and ethnic minorities accounted for a stunning 83 percent of U.S. population growth in the 2000s. Not only are Hispanics the fastest growing population group in the United States; by 2050, an estimated 30 percent of the population will be of Hispanic origin.

While demographic change is not new, it’s the nature of that change today that is so different. The United States is well on its way to being a "minority-majority" population. Illegal immigration then isn’t so much problem in of itself as a synecdoche for larger changes in American society, and ones viewed with not just discomfort but horror. You have, says Skocpol, a great many Americans who "believe that their country is being taken away" and illegal immigration is simply indicative of this transformation.

Not surprisingly, much of this anxiety is further perpetuated by the presence of a black, cosmopolitan man with a foreign father and strange sounding name sitting in the Oval Office. For many Tea Partiers, says Skocpol, he is the epitome of everything they mistrust about what is happening in America today — prima facie evidence of the social and cultural changes that concern them most. (This also explains why GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney tends to contrast Obama’s pledge to "transform" the country with his own pledge to "restore" it.)

What is perhaps most fascinating about these sentiments is that they bear striking similarity to the white backlash of the late 1960s. Then, there was a rising belief among many working-class Americans that they were being squeezed by liberal social engineers who were using their taxpayer dollars to dole out welfare benefits to poor blacks in America’s inner cities. Back then, the resentment bred by such perceptions shifted the very trajectory of American politics. It provided Republicans with a boost to their anti-government, conservative, populist message — which resonated so deeply with white working-class voters. It’s a message that still colors the country’s political debates today.

Today’s illegal immigrant backlash may likewise reshape politics — but in a way uniquely destructive to Republicans. The Tea Party’s passion on illegal immigration is not shared by the wider electorate — the vast majority of which is indifferent to the issue. What’s more, as Republicans channel the Tea Party position on immigration, the more they risk alienating Hispanic voters, the fastest growing demographic group in the United States.

A whopping 67 percent of Hispanics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party; a mere 20 percent self-identify as Republicans. In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote. Even with his administration’s strong focus on enforcement, there is so far little reason to doubt that he won’t repeat that accomplishment this November. In the past few months, however, the Obama administration has moderated its position on deportation, surely with an eye on 2012. And by even raising the possibility of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Obama makes good with the larger Hispanic community, which considers this a top priority.

Ironically, it wasn’t long ago that Republican elites were singing a very different tune on this issue. In the 2000s, there was a significant effort by President George W. Bush — and his political guru, Karl Rove — to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party and bring Hispanics into the GOP fold. In 2004, the GOP netted just over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. They were rewarded with a comprehensive immigration reform measure proposed by Bush would have created a path to political citizenship for illegal immigrants. But conservatives killed that legislation in 2007; since then, reform has been dead in Washington.

As Angela Kelley, the vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, said to me, at one point 23 Republican Senators voted in favor of Bush’s proposed legislation "Today, it’s hard to imagine 23 Republican officeholders total that would support such a bill." Mitt Romney has used the immigration issue as a cudgel by which to attack both Perry and now former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has floated the idea of allowing illegal residents who have lived in the country for 25 years to stay — pending approval of their local community.

In Thursday’s GOP debate, Romney defended his tough views on immigration and blasted Gingrich’s efforts to label him as anti-immigrant. But Romney’s defense was primarily focused on his support for legal immigration. When it comes to those crossing the border illegally, Romney’s position remains one of enforcement-only. Throughout the presidential campaign, he has run to the right of the GOP field: decrying the possibility of amnesty and services that benefit illegal immigrants; calling for a veto of the Dream Act, a measure that would provide citizenship to illegal immigrants who have served in the military or attend college; spoken of a "high-tech fence" along the Mexican border; and now has floated unusual the proposal that illegal immigrants should "self-deport."

While such positions might appeal to some GOP voters, they won’t do much to attract Hispanics. And in an effort to appeal to voters who are already likely to cast their ballot for the GOP, the Republican candidates are alienating a segment of the electorate that represents a crucial voting bloc come November in a host of battleground states– New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada — and even states where the Hispanic share of the population is smaller, like Pennsylvania and Virginia. And, as of yet, there is little evidence that the stern GOP position on immigration will sway many independents or Democratic voters to cross the aisle.

The irony of all this is that Obama should be having serious problems with Hispanic voters. His support for the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform might sound good, but the record increase in deportations speaks volumes. But, as Kelley says, the Republicans have "made it damn easy" for Obama to hold on to the Hispanic vote. The problem for Republicans is that their base is making it virtually impossible to take political advantage of this situation. So, in the end, the Hispanic vote could end up being decisive for Democrats — but it might have more to do with the fact that they are seen as the lesser of two evils.

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