Why Republicans Can't Move Left on Immigration

Writing at The American Conservative, Michael Brendan Dougherty makes a few smart points about how the GOP can move forward. He contends that there is no reason for Republicans give up social conservatism—abortion will always be a contentious issue in American politics, and social conservatism is still prevalent. And he argues that there is no way to reconcile less restrictionist immigration policy with the GOP base, which consists of people who feel most threatened by mass immigration:

The working-class white vote that created the modern Republican majority is precisely the subset of voters that feels most threatened by mass immigration, culturally and economically. They revolted when Bush tried to force it on them. They will revolt again. Conservative parties as a rule have constituents that resist the kind of social change brought on by mass immigration. You can be a conservative party or a mass immigration party, not both. Further, your ideas for middle-class entitlements also threaten these voters, so why would you want to confirm to them with your immigration policy that you do not have their interests at heart?

I would just note that neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party is a “mass immigration” party—Barack Obama is responsible for more deportations than any president in recent memory. Even still, this is a perceptive diagnosis of the problem faced by Republicans. They can’t solve their weakness with Latinos by shifting left on immigration, and to make matters worse, the Latino community is not a good ideological fit for the GOP—by and large, Latino voters are just more likely to support greater government.

Where does this leave Republicans? Dougherty offers one alternative to mass immigration: Republicans can become the party of “Americanization” and assimilation. “Republicans must be the party that wants to integrate immigrants into American society, to reconcile the new America with the old America, to cheer on Hispanics as successful Americans.”

This lines up well with an argument I made several months ago, in a feature for the print edition of The Prospect. In short (or tl;dr), there’s no guarantee that Democrats have a long-term advantage with Latinos; intermarriage, economic integration, and upward mobility are all things that could increase the Latino constituency for conservative ideas. If Republicans can close the lid on explicitly anti-immigrant rhetoric, and offer policies that actually address the concerns of working and middle-class families, they might be able to capitalize on this change.