Realistic Republican Expectations on Immigration


In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, and poor showing among Hispanics, Republicans and conservatives in general are reassessing their position on immigration.  At least part of this is driven by vote calculations.  Some proponents of reform have been pushing entirely unrealistic numbers in terms of the Hispanic vote for Republicans, such as winning half the Hispanic vote.  Such hopes are fool’s gold, and I fear that expectations of sudden electoral riches may end up driving Republicans to make a bad bargain, both for themselves and the country.

Democrats won’t let the Republicans off the hook that easily.  The party of institutionalized racism and identity politics certainly isn’t going to simply give up on what’s been a winning hand for them for decades now.  There’s also reason to believe that only a fairly small part of the Hispanic vote, above Romney’s 29%, is available to Republicans, anyway.  A recent forum at the Wilson Center on the Latino Vote had a lot to offer on the subject, but a few points stood out to confirm this assessment.

Writer Roberto Suro dissected the Hispanic vote into some of its component parts.  While some elements may be more socially conservative, he pointed out that the Puerto Rican vote in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut is among the most liberal in the country, voting upwards of 85% Democrat.  I’d add that the next generation of Cuban voters, with only second- or third-hand knowledge of Castro’s depredations, is also proving to be more liberal in its voting.

As for the first point, Obama flack Dan Restrepo wasn’t shy at all about calling legalization, anything short of citizenship, “second-class status here in the United States.”  If the deal is some sort of legalization without citizenship, expect to hear a lot of that phrase.

Suro also had this to say, on a somewhat more mundane level:

I have to respectfully disagree. If you look back over the last 10 years or so of failure in immigration policy-making – actually more than 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, depends on how far back you want to go – one of the developments, particularly since the mid-2000s, has been the emergence of a fairly vigorous immigrant-rights movement in this country, and a litigation power and a protest power that didn’t exist before.

All of you have talked here, as if you missed the key to all immigration legislation in the past, maybe it will be different this time, has been in the details. So, “a legalization,” this means nothing.

There are two things we know from past experience about the nature of these proposals.

One is that a legalization proposal is going to be a giant game of chutes and ladders, with all kinds of qualifications, a process for getting into it. There are going to be right to the last minute, bargaining over, “let’s set the start date here, or here,” and you’re tossing a million people one way or the other depending on a deal that’s made in one of those gilded rooms in the Capitol building, when it goes to conference, right? So we know that.

All that stuff will be litigated. It will be the process – the process of legalization itself, given the current framework, is designed to be long. So it is going to be litigated, and it is going to be a process that people are going to be going through for a long time.

And it will be full of potholes, full of questions about implementation, rights to counsel. I mean, we’re talking about taking a framework now, legally, that is intensely hostile to the legal rights of the foreign-born.

The other piece of the architecture of immigration policy that we can be pretty confident about is that as you build an umbrella under which certain people are sheltered, life outside that umbrella gets harsher. That means that whoever doesn’t get in, is going to face a much more wicked situation, in terms of much higher rates of deportation, fewer rights when you –

People are portraying this as, “Oh, by April we’ll pass this law, and then Latinos will forget about it.” It will be a living, breathing controversy in Latino communities for the next decade.

Suro’s point is that these battles and gaps are inherently unavoidable.  There’s simply no way to take immigration off the table.  And in all of that litigation, and all of those bureaucratic debates, expect the Democrats to pose as the champions of the Hispanics, dragging out resolution of each and every issue as long as there is electoral advantage to it.

None of this is to suggest that Republicans shouldn’t rethink where they stand on immigration.  The current system is a mess on many levels, and needs to be reworked to better serve our national interests.  If the election helps do that, it will be a net plus.  And a smart policy can also help avoid cementing self-inflicted wounds.  But the sooner Republicans understand that they’re not going to walk away with 50% of the Hispanic vote any time soon, if ever, the better-positioned they’ll be to craft a policy that makes sense for the country, as well as to avoid making concession to Democrats who will work the negotiations with elections in mind.