The Tea Party, most conservative element of today’s Republican Party, takes its name from a historic incident. But today it appears to be ignoring history, at least the recent political history of California.
For months, the Tea Party has campaigned against the “path to citizenship” portion of the immigration bill passed by the Senate in June, calling it “amnesty for illegals.” Emails from TeaParty.org urge “a full frontal assault on every member of Congress with a No Amnesty! Fax Blast.”
But as the philosopher George Santayana observed early in the last century, “Those who cannot remember history” may be condemned to repeat it.
The political history of California’s last two decades offers plenty of object lessons for Republicans, some of whose national leaders have taken heed by supporting the immigration bill.
Nowhere is a repeat of this history more likely than in Texas and Florida, two states where Republicans control both the governors’ offices and the legislatures, where large numbers of Latinos already vote, but with large numbers of eligible Hispanics who have not yet bothered to register or even to become citizens.
One survey found two years ago that Texas had 920,000 U.S citizen Latinos not registered to vote and about 3 million other Hispanic residents who are eligible to become U.S. citizens but have not applied. In Florida, where elections often have been decided by very small margins over the last 15 years, the same study found 600,000 Latino U.S. citizens not registered to vote.
The large numbers of non-voting Latino citizens set those states up to follow California out of the red Republican column into Democratic blue territory. Imagine the seismic shift if Texas, the foundation for all recent GOP presidential campaigns, were to turn blue.
That’s what Republican members of Congress concerned about their own party’s future probably should remember as they decide whether or not to allow a House floor vote on the immigration bill passed by the Senate in June.
For California was once a pretty red state in presidential politics. Before 1994, Republicans carried this state in nine of 12 post-World War II national elections. But the GOP has not won here since, and the only top-of-ticket statewide victories by a Republican in that time were those of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose movie stardom and centrist politics won him many non-GOP votes.
No one has the slightest doubt what caused this shift: the 1994 Proposition 187 and then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s vocal support for it. Within four years of that anti-illegal immigrant measure’s passage, more than 2.5 million California Latinos applied for citizenship and registered to vote, the vast majority as Democrats.
So there is no doubt about the power of the immigration issue to galvanize the previously politically lethargic among Hispanics.
Every poll of Latinos in America shows immigration as their central issue; one Latino Decisions survey found more than 65 percent of U.S. citizen Hispanics either have an undocumented immigrant family member or know one personally.
Now it is Republicans in the House who may block what would be the first federal measure since 1986 to give immigrants here without authorization a chance to acquire citizenship, even if the path would be long, convoluted and expensive. If the GOP manages to kill the bill, there’s the strong possibility a tide of Latino citizens all over the country will register and vote – against Republicans.
Yes, Republicans, especially in Texas, say it can’t and won’t happen there. Conservative Republicans said the same thing here in 1994.
Do the effects of the immigration issue endure? In last year’s presidential vote, fully 18 years post-187, California Latinos voted Democratic by an 80-20 percent margin. In the Ronald Reagan era encompassing most of the 30 years before 187, California Hispanics usually voted Democratic, too, but by far smaller margins of about 60-40 percent. That extra 20 percent of Hispanics, especially with a much larger Latino vote than previously, is one big reason California became to Democratic presidential candidates what Texas has been for Republicans – a seemingly unshakeable base.
Republicans opposing the immigration measure as a form of amnesty for people they call criminals say they can’t compromise their principles. But if they don’t bend on this issue, they may soon no longer have sufficient political clout or numbers to make a difference on any other issue they consider a matter of principle.