It’s almost a political given these days that Democrats are “pro-immigration” and Republicans “anti-immigration.” Of course, this is a simplistic view, and misses the bigger picture of immigration reform efforts in recent history — most notably that one of the more powerful pushes of late was energized by Republicans. Remember pre-9/11 President George W. Bush’s making nice with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox? What about John McCain’s 2006 effort with Senator Ted Kennedy: the Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA)?
Where have all the pro-immigration reform Republicans gone?
“John McCain was probably one of the most immigrant-friendly Republicans in the Senate. Latinos were the people that he should have been able to depend on. He ran for president and it didn’t pay off,” said Stephen A. Nuño, assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. Nuño postulates that, Republicans’ unwillingness to push for immigration reform is at least party the fault of Latino voters.
When Latino support fell through for McCain in 2008 despite his efforts on immigration, it was viewed as a failure by the Republican machine. Thus, there was no longer an electoral incentive for him or other Republicans to push the issue, because Latino organizations lined up behind then-candidate Barack Obama — even though he hadn’t pushed for the same types of reforms as McCain up to that point.
“Republicans look at that and say, ‘They are not going to vote for us anyway because we are white or because we are racist,’” Nuño said.
That kind of logic is a bit of a leap, though, if you ask Professor Luis Fraga, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at the University of Washington and a political scientist who studies Latino voting behavior. Latinos support candidates based on policy — not race.
“Studies show that Latino voters are much more interested in supporting a candidate who has policy positions similar to their own than they do supporting a co-ethnic or a candidate who speaks Spanish,” Fraga said. “These last two candidate characteristics are important to Latino voters — but not as much as congruence on policy positions.”
A more likely scenario for Republicans’ move away from supporting immigration reform is that the party has shifted its outreach to its more conservative base, giving up on recruiting Latino voters in states like Nevada or Colorado. Thus you see in the campaigns of formerly immigration friendly Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina or Orrin Hatch of Utah a move towards an enforcement only policy.
“They do not want to risk losing to a socially conservative, Tea Party-type opponent, by being charged that they are ‘soft’ of immigration or support ‘amnesty,’” he said. “By switching positions on immigration, they are less likely to have ‘more conservative’ opponents in Republican primaries.”
Thus, instead of blaming Latino voters, Fraga emphasizes the rightward movement of the party as the reason pro-immigration Republicans are a dying breed. Because of this rightward trend, the GOP has fastened onto the “attrition through enforcement” mantra that Fraga said mobilizes the most anti-immigrant parts of the Republican base, while not driving away voters in swing states. Which is to say the Republican party is just fine with being known as the party of whites, he said; the party machine has made the decision that gains with black or Latino voters aren’t necessary to victory in 2012 or going forward.
But perhaps the most interesting take on the issue of why Republicans are no longer pro-immigrant comes from Michael Olivas, a professor who teaches immigration law at the University of Houston Law Center. Olivas contends that Democratic policy has cozied up to what were Republican policies were just a few years ago. So in a way, Democrats are actually the new pro-immigrant Republicans.
“President [George W.] Bush used more prosecutorial discretion than President Obama has — by a long shot — and he has deported and removed more people than at any other time since Operation Wetback in the 1950s,” Olivas said. “The arithmetic in this makes it clear that [Obama] is a secure borders president.”
In this vein, it appears that asking why one party is “pro-immigration” is much more a matter of asking what that means in the first place.