Immigration Change Vital For GOP, But Not Enough

Saturday, 27 Apr 2013, 8:56:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Last fall’s overwhelming, more than 3-1 Latino vote for

President Obama has at last gotten leading Republican politicians to realize

they can’t permanently treat all 11 million undocumented immigrants like

criminals.

Gradually, too, from possible president candidate and

former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to former presidential candidate and Arizona Sen.

John McCain, they are coming to accept the notion that any significant plan to

change American immigration policy must include some path to citizenship for

illegals who have lived and worked many years in America.

They are still far from convincing all their party mates

that shifting to this stance and abandoning their far more hard-line past

positions favoring mass deportation is suicidal for the party in a nation where

Latinos are the fastest-growing population element and voter bloc.

Tony Quinn, a former Republican political operative and

now co-editor of the California Target Book guide to state politics, calls GOP

leaders favoring changes in their policy “Republicans who can count.”

They are, he said, “moving to take over the party with a

mission to stop alienating the fastest growing parts of the American

electorate.”

Changing immigration law to create a doable path to

citizenship, of course, will not be enough. (And there is some doubt that the

13-year waiting period included in the immigration reform package now before

the U.S. Senate fits into the doable category.)

The GOP will also have to convince Hispanic voters its

candidates are the best choices on the other issues salient to Latinos – the

same ones at the top of other Americans’ agendas. Those include job creation,

education reform and health care, according to the latest survey by Latino

Decisions, whose polling of Latinos before last November’s election correctly

forecast an Obama margin of about 75 percent to 25 percent among Hispanics.

But without significant retreat from the GOP’s

longstanding hardline stances, Republicans will simply not get much more than

2012 candidate Mitt Romney’s 22 percent of the Latino vote anytime in the near

future, the poll shows.

 “There is a swing

vote of about 30 percent among Latinos,” said Matt Barrero, a University of

Washington professor and a principal in the Latino Decisions firm. “In our

polling, only 13 percent of registered Latinos are definite Republican votes,

but 44 percent say they would give Republican candidates a strong look if they

took leadership in getting a pathway to citizenship.”

Barrero adds that his survey “proves the alarm clock is

ringing loud and clear for the GOP. Latinos oppose the ‘no-citizenship, but

work permit’ approach some Republicans have proposed, because it would create a

permanent underclass. A half-baked solution without citizenship at the end is

no solution at all and will leave Republicans without the Latino votes they

need to get elected.”

This creates a quandary for some GOP politicians, since

much of the GOP base adamantly opposes any sort of citizenship for anyone

currently in this country illegally. Wrote one conservative blogger, “The

immigration restriction base for the GOP is like public employee unions are for

the Democrats in California. They’re the strongest faction.”

But Republicans who want to soften the party’s stance

plainly think those voters – like the conservative Republicans who often said

they could never vote for Romney for president – would eventually come back to

the party because they would have nowhere else to go.

And with about one-fifth of the 10 million Latino U.S.

citizens who are currently unregistered widely expected to register in time for

the 2016 election, it’s clear the GOP needs more appeal to Latinos to have a

shot at winning any future national vote. Fully 58 percent of the 800

registered voters surveyed by Latino Decisions said immigration change is the

decisive issue for them and another 30 percent rated it second only to jobs.

That makes this is a gateway issue. “It’s a matter of

fundamental respect or disrespect for us,” says Eliseo Medina,

secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. “In the last

election, Latinos felt the Republicans were being disrespectful. They can get

back to the level of about 40 percent among Latinos if they show that respect.”

The GOP will need to do more than just shift on

immigration, but without opening that gate, the party will surely continue to

lose ground, both nationally and in California, where Latinos are expected to

be the single largest ethnic group within the next year or two.

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