By Mark Salter
It will look a lot like legislation that died in previous congresses. As I wrote last June, reform will happen when it is clear to leaders of both parties that it’s in their vital interests to make it happen. That moment arrived when President Obama won re-election with a 3-1 advantage among Hispanic voters, an even larger share than the big majority he won in 2008.
Congressional Democrats understand that their Latino supporters expect such loyalty to be rewarded by making immigration reform the party’s top legislative priority this year. The president has promised as much. Republican leaders recognize the demographic changes taking place in this country, and that they can’t win national elections now or in the future without making inroads into the Democrats’ immense share of the non-white vote.
There are Democrats who will be tempted to encourage Republican opposition to gel, thus keeping the issue alive for 2014 congressional elections. Recalling that some Democrats — including then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — did more to obstruct the 2007 immigration bill by favoring the demands of the AFL-CIO over the wishes of reform advocates, it’s possible they might again reject an effective guest-worker provision, which would discourage Republican support.
The president could favor, as he seems to enjoy doing these days, a confrontational approach over bipartisan consensus building, which might drive away GOP support as well.
Republican leaders recognize the imperative of resolving the issue. But many rank and file party members, most of whom have more to fear personally from angry reform opponents than from angry Hispanic voters, will remain opposed, some stridently so. Aided and abetted by conservative radio and TV personalities, they could frame their opposition in language that will exacerbate the damage already done to their party’s reputation among the fastest growing demographic group in the country.
But I think those factors will be mitigated this year by the growing respect for the clout of Hispanic voters and will ultimately prove less of an obstruction than in past debates.
Should reform fail to pass this Congress, many Latinos might be so fed up with both parties’ that they might be more likely to sit out the next election than turn out to punish Republicans. Perhaps for that reason, Democrats appreciate that the time has arrived to deliver on Obama’s promise. The number of union households in America is declining and will continue to do so, while Hispanic households are growing rapidly. Democrats know, too, that in the near term, passing immigration reform will benefit them more than Republicans.
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, supporting immigration reform won’t be the beginning of the end of Republicans’ problems with Hispanic voters, but it might be the end of the beginning.
An American community that shares many of the values and policy views of conservatives ought to be open to appeals from Republican candidates. That a huge majority of Latinos won’t consider voting for Republicans is attributable, to a great extent, to their impression that the party and self-identified conservatives on talk radio and cable TV believe America would be a better place without them.
Most Republicans didn’t intend to give that impression, but it is at the root of Hispanic alienation from the GOP. And there are some immigration opponents who frame their opposition as an appeal to preserve American culture, by which they mean: free it from the unwanted influence of Spanish-speaking Hispanics.
Those defenders of an imaginary America culture of yesteryear — one that wasn’t influenced by all the languages, aesthetics and ethnic traditions in our nation of immigrants — are a minority in the country and in the Republican Party.
But proving that to Hispanics, after the disdain directed their way during the last two attempts to pass immigration reform and the hostility from over-publicized buffoons like Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio, will require Republicans to help pass comprehensive reform now.
The GOP won’t be rewarded for it with greater Hispanic support in the next election or probably the election after that. All they will have achieved is an overdue and sensible solution to a national problem and the opportunity to start talking to Latino voters about something other than whether they want their relatives to self-deport.
Eventually the party will likely find support among more than a quarter of these voters for its principles of low taxes and limited government and for conservative social values. It might take a while. But it had better happen before a Republican presidential nominee loses the state of Texas to go along with the Democrats’ control of California and New York — before, in other words, Republicans become a permanent minority for having alienated too many other minorities.