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.