It's Not All Bad News with the GOP and Latinos

If comprehensive immigration reform were guaranteed to give votes to Republican politicians—and presidential candidates in particular—there would be no argument about passing it in the House of Representatives. It would be a done deal. But there’s a real question as to whether Republicans will reap any gains from passing the bill, or at least enough to outweigh their skepticism for some of its provisions. David Brooks is on the side of those who want a bill, and in his column this morning, he warns that Republicans are dooming themselves to irrelevance by opposing reform:

Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the G.O.P. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard.

Whether this bill passes or not, this country is heading toward a multiethnic future. Republicans can either shape that future in a conservative direction or, as I’ve tried to argue, they can become the receding roar of a white America that is never coming back.

For as much as I’m persuaded by Brooks’ take, the reality is that things aren’t that bad. At least not yet. At Latino Decisions, senior analyst Adrian Pantoja uses data from a recent survey of more than 6,000 Latino immigrants to show that—pace assumptions from Republicans and Democrats—the partisan affiliation among “Latino non-citizens is largely non-partisan and undefined.”

Among Latino legal permanent residents, he finds, only 23 percent identify themselves as Democrats, while 6 percent choose the Republican label. The large bulk of these residents are either independent (17%), “other” (26%), or they don’t know (28%). And while more undocumented Latino immigrants identify themselves as Democrats compared to their legal counterparts (25%), the same is generally true for them as well. Few Republicans (3%), a greater number of independents (20%), fewer “others” (24%) and just as many “nones or I don’t knows” (28%). When you break this down by the intensity of views, what you find is that very few Latino immigrants call themselves strong Democrats or strong Republicans, and overall, more than 70% of Latino immigrants hold no party identification. These voters, in other words, are up for grabs.

More importantly, this is true even if comprehensive immigration reform fails. Political affiliation is shaped by circumstance, and this is especially true for immigrants, who enter American politics with few preconceptions. The Republican Party doesn’t need to pass immigration reform now to present itself as accommodating to Latinos in the future. But it also has to avoid explicitly anti-Latino rhetoric, and that’s where it’s failing.

While there are substantive arguments against comprehensive immigration reform that aren’t filled with animus towards Latino immigrants and their interests, the most vocal opposition doesn’t meet that standard. Right-wing lawmakers, and their allies at places like the Heritage Foundation, warn that “amnesty” for unauthorized immigration will take government resources from citizens, increase crime, and yield a large population of people who can’t assimilate into mainstream American life.

And this is all to say nothing of GOP rhetoric and policy on immigration over the last two years, including Mitt Romney’s for “self-deportation” and the embrace of draconian anti-immigration policies in states like Arizona and Alabama. You could even go further, to 2009, with the Republican Party’s attacks on Sonia Sotomayor, which—according to a study published last year—may have diminished the party’s standing with a wide range of Latino voters.

While it’s possible for Republicans to oppose immigration reform and, in the long-term, build a fruitful relationp with Latino voters, the more likely outcome—given the tenor of the opposition—is to reinforce the growing perception of the Democratic Party as friendly to Latinos, and the GOP as hostile. Republicans should pray this doesn’t happen.

In this world, new Latino immigrants will enter the United States and quickly learn that the Democratic Party is the proper vehicle for advancing their political interests. Among their relatives, their friends, their communities, Democratic voting will be a given. For second, third, and fourth generation Latinos, the situation will be different—assimilation into the mainstream gives Republicans an opening—but not by much. They’ll understand the GOP as hostile to the aspirations of their older relatives, and vote accordingly. And don’t under-estimate the durability of these perceptions; they can last for decades, as evidenced by the long-time allegiance of blacks to the Democratic Party, or—until recently—Cubans to the GOP. Yes, a major event—like a war or another great recession—could shake political allegiances and make this a moot issue. But I wouldn’t make that gamble.

If I were advising Republicans, I would push them to work hard to counter the perception that they’re hostile to Latinos and oppose their inclusion to political life. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive reform. Support for something like the DREAM Act—in addition to something that makes room for more high-skilled immigration—would do the trick. It’s just that if the GOP wants to have a chance at playing the long game—and building a relationship with Latino voters—it can’t maintain its current stance of categorical obstinance.