The GOP’s Presidential election defeat is opening up a debate in the party, with more than a few voices saying they are willing to rethink their views on immigration. This is good news, which means it’s also a good moment to address some of the frequent claims from the anti-immigration right that simply aren’t true, especially about Hispanics.
One myth is that Latino voters simply aren’t worth pursuing because they’re automatic Democrats. Yet Ronald Reagan was so eager to welcome Latinos to the GOP that he described them as “Republicans who don’t know it yet.”
Recall that between 1996 and 2004 the GOP doubled its percentage of the Hispanic vote to more that 40%, culminating in the re-election of George W. Bush, who won Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada—states with fast-growing Hispanic populations that Mitt Romney lost. The notion that Hispanics are “natural” Democrats and not swing voters is belied by this history.
Equally specious is the argument that Latino immigrants come here, often illegally, to “steal” jobs or to go on the dole. If illegal aliens are displacing natives in the labor force, why was there more immigration and less unemployment under President Bush? And if foreign nationals are primarily attracted to our welfare state, how to explain the fact that low-income immigrants are less likely to be receiving public benefits than low-income natives?
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Illegal aliens aren’t eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other federal entitlements. But even those low-income immigrants who are eligible for public assistance sign up at lower rates than their native counterparts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps, noncitizens who qualify are significantly less likely than citizens to participate.
Over the past decade, the states experiencing the fastest immigrant population growth have not been traditional gateways like New York and California. Latino newcomers have been flocking to Arkansas, Tennessee, Utah, Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and the Carolinas—states that are among the stingiest for public benefits.
Between 2000 and 2005, the Hispanic population in Arkansas grew by 48%, more than any other state. Social welfare spending in Arkansas is among the lowest in the country, making it an odd destination for someone in search of a hand-out. The early and mid-2000s were a period of strong economic growth in the state and much of the Southeast, and the immigrants were looking for jobs.
Polls regularly show that immigration is not a priority for Hispanic voters, but how border policy is discussed still matters as a threshold and symbolic issue. When Republican Presidential candidates are preoccupied with putting up an electrified fence along the Rio Grande and blaming Latinos (wrongly) for driving up crime, unemployment and health-care costs, we are a long way from Ronald Reagan’s welcoming GOP.
Republican restrictionists might also keep in mind that more than Latinos are listening to the harsh rhetoric on immigration. Asian support for the GOP fell dramatically in the 1990s after Republican Governor Pete Wilson pushed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that denied illegal immigrants and their children access to education and health care and was primarily aimed at Mexicans.
Asians, the fastest growing racial or ethnic group between 2000 and 2010, broke for Mr. Obama this year, 73% to 26%, though only 41% of Asian-Americans identify as Democrats. The nearby table shows the GOP exit-poll share across the last three Presidential elections.
One irony is that Republicans obsessed with illegal immigration haven’t noticed that the problem is going away, thanks in part to a more secure border but mostly due to slower economic growth. Illegal immigration to the U.S. peaked in 2000, under President Clinton. It was down by more than a third on the day President Obama took office, and net migration from Mexico today is estimated to be zero. Between 2005 and 2010 as many Mexicans left the U.S. as arrived, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Hispanic growth in the U.S. isn’t being driven by newcomers but by birthrates among those already here. Talk radio hosts could declare the borders closed today to all Mexicans, South Koreans, Indians and any other foreigner, and the voting share of these ethnic groups would increase for decades. Short of deportation, or “self-deportation” as Mr. Romney put it, the minority share of the electorate is going to rise inexorably.
The larger issue is about values and economics. With rare historical exceptions like anti-Chinese nativism of the late 1800s, belief in the immigrant story of aspiration and the U.S. as a land of opportunity have been core American values. A party that rejects those beliefs distances itself from American exceptionalism, if we can borrow a word popular in conservative circles.
As for the economics, immigration is one reason the U.S. has better prospects than the aging entitlement states of Europe and Japan. America needs immigrants with varying degrees of skill and income for economic growth, and the best way to know how much is to let labor markets determine the flow through flexible visa programs.
U.S. immigration policy should focus on regulating the flow, not ending it, and that means expanding legal ways to come, which is the most effective and humane way to reduce illegal entries. This was the evidence of the Bracero program of the 1950s before Big Labor induced Democrats to kill it.
Minorities need not be a barrier to electing Republicans. They are an opportunity to expand the GOP coalition to include our most recent arrivals. The sooner the party realizes that, the better off it will be.
A version of this article appeared November 14, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Immigrants and the GOP.