Thirty-one years ago, two Republican candidates stood on a debate stage arguing about who would treat immigrants better. “These are good people, strong people, part of my family,” proclaimed then candidate George H.W. Bush. Candidate Ronald Reagan presented an affirmative solution, stating, “[r]ather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.”
Three decades later, the Republican Party is unrecognizable on the issue of immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform that includes any kind of regularization of the undocumented population is off the table. The only thing that is up for debate in the GOP is who will be tougher on the demonized undocumented population.
What happened between now and then?
For starters, brown people had more babies than White folks. For years, demographers had predicted that the U.S. would be a “minority-majority” country by mid-century. In 2010, for the first time, only 50.2 percent of babies were non-Latino whites. Meanwhile, the Latino population in particular increased by 43 percent, accounting for more than half the country’s growth over the past ten years due to increased births and immigration.
You would think any political party would be eager to tap into the burgeoning new Latino electorate. While a few Republicans are, the GOP in recent years has mostly stuck with what it does best: courting and winning the votes of older White Americans. The tactical reasoning behind this short-sighted strategy is that it targets the Democrats’ weak spot: White voters.
And many members of that voting bloc aren’t too thrilled about the demographic changes taking place. To a small few, the shift is downright repulsive. To others it simply means that the America their children and grandchildren are inheriting is starting to look, sound, and taste a lot different from the nation they grew up in. That certainly doesn’t bother everyone, but one need not look further than the Tea Party to safely conclude that some White people are freaking out.
Demographic anxiety has been further amplified by post-9/11 national security concerns over the past few years. This atmosphere, coupled with a massive economic recession, created a perfect storm for the Latino community that has been brutally exploited by the GOP.
The Republican Party’s new 21st century immigration platform is aimed both at quelling those fears and stifling the political empowerment of the Latino community.
By turning their backs on immigration reform, Republicans surely knew they were making sure that millions of Latinos would never see the inside of an American voting booth and have President Obama to thank for it. It’s no coincidence that denying college-educated undocumented youth a path to legalization also means that some of the Latino community’s smartest and brightest will never be brought into the political-economic fold. Meanwhile, Republican-led efforts to change the 14th Amendment’s citizenship provisions to exclude the U.S.-born children of immigrants would disenfranchise a large segment of the current and future Latino voting population. In 2009, two Republican Senators fought for an amendment requiring the U.S. Census Bureau to add a question about immigration status to its 2010 survey. Had it passed, it would have likely discouraged many Latino families from participating and produced a serious political and fiscal impact on minority communities.
Immigration isn’t the only issue involved in this approach. Relatedly, many of the voter identification laws passed by GOP legislatures amount to little more than minority-voter suppression schemes.
The problem with the GOP’s White-voter strategy is two-fold. First of all, they’ve brought bigotry into the mainstream. It doesn’t stop with the Kansas state representative who thinks the best way to deal with illegal immigration is to shoot undocumented immigrants like feral hogs or the Alabama state senator who advised his colleagues to “empty the clip, and do what has to be done” on immigration. The hateful rhetoric has worked its way up to the Republican primary where the GOP frontrunner has “jokingly” proposed building an electric fence along the border designed to kill anyone who crosses it.
Secondly, while promoting policies that would stem the growth of the Latino electorate, Republicans have simultaneously alienated and underestimated the significant number of Latino voters who can and do vote. Those voters have proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and they’re not too happy with the GOP’s immigration platform and the undeniably anti-Latino tone that it has taken on.
Some Republicans have been smart enough to warn their colleagues that the GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies may relegate the party itself to minority status. Yet, their long-term reasoning has largely been disregarded in favor of short-term electoral gains. Furthermore, many of them lack the courage to call out specific members of the GOP by name.
Democrats still have a long way to go before they will earn the trust and loyalty of the Latino community. Yet, the notion coined by Reagan that Latinos “are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet” is remarkably obsolete.