When the House GOP unveiled their principles on Immigration Reform in late January, there seemed to be some hope that an immigration bill could be passed sometime this year. It looked like Republicans were going to get their act together and pass some kind of bill to deal with the estimated 12 million folks who are within our borders illegally. We were finally dropping the fantasy of trying to deport the population of Pennsylvania and creating a new regime to welcome people from other lands.
It was a nice dream while it lasted.
A bevy of conservatives writers and activists came out forcefully against any proposal. A number of the so-called conservative reform writers like Ross Douthat saw immigration reform as a waste of time. In his February 1 column he wrote about all the reasons to not pass a bill: it was weak on protecting the borders, it favored low-skilled workers over high-skilled ones, the issue wasn’t pressing among voters, it was a concern of the monied elite and not the the populists. The biggest one was that it was wasting electoral effort on a bunch of people (Hispanics) who would just vote for the Democrats anyway:
So why are Republican leaders flirting with the idea? In part for principled reasons — libertarianism, pro-business sentiment and “compassionate conservative” impulses all align to make comprehensive reform seem like an obvious good to many figures in the party, and to obscure its downsides and its risks.
But it’s also hard for G.O.P. elites to let go of the idea that there’s a simple, one-fell-swoop solution to their electoral difficulties. The entire post-2012 immigration reform push was born out of this hope — that a single policy shift could deliver the Hispanic vote, save the party from its demographic crisis, and (perhaps most important) make other reforms and innovations unnecessary.
This conceit was always a fond delusion, not least because most Hispanics are not single-issue voters, and their leftward tilt has always been related to broader socioeconomic concerns. So with them, as with most Americans, the problem for Republicans in 2008 and 2012 was much bigger than the immigration issue: it was a platform designed for the challenges of 1980, and rhetoric that seemed to write off half the country as layabouts and moochers. And any solution for the party, in 2016 and beyond, would have to offer much more than the same old Reagan-era script with an amnesty stapled at the bottom.
Now Douthat, is one of my favorite conservative writers. I tend to agree with some his ideas for reform of the GOP. But on this issue, he falters and in this article in particular he dances to the border of prejudice towards the nations largest minority.
There are reasons why the Republican leadership in the House would want to postpone immigration reform; first and foremost it could divide the caucus during an election year. The decision was made with an eye towards this November. The Republicans decided to focus on short term prospects and in doing so, made the long tern prospects for the party difficult.
Conservative writer Peter Wehner wrote this week about the changing demographics of the United States. It’s all stuff we have heard before, but important to hear in the current context. He writes that his stats on the browning of America had a purpose: to show that the GOP’s problems were structural, not cosmetic:
My purpose with this post is to present the empirical data, not to interpret it, except to say this: Republican problems are not superficial, transient, or cyclical. The trends speak for themselves. The GOP therefore needs to articulate a governing vision and develop a governing agenda that can reach groups that have not traditionally been supportive of it. Republicans, at least when it comes to presidential elections, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.
For the GOP to revivify itself and enlarge its appeal, Republicans at every level will have to think creatively even as they remain within the boundaries of their core principles. It isn’t an easy task, but it’s certainly not an impossible one. (Bill Clinton did this for the Democratic Party in 1992 and Tony Blair did this for the Labour Party in 1997.) It would of course help if those speaking for the party were themselves irenic rather than angry, inviting rather than off-putting, individuals of conviction who also possess the gift of persuasion and a certain grace. “You know what charm is,” Albert Camus wrote in The Fall, “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”
The reason the GOP should pass an immigration bill is for its long-term viability. The party isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but Wehner’s numbers show that relying solely on the white vote will make it harder to win the White House and Congress, not easier.
The thing is, the America of the future will look more like me or that Coke ad. The GOP will respond to this changing America. It can respond in ways that will develop a positive conservative vision of government that is inclusive, or it can present vision filled with fear of outsiders.
What I think people like Douthat miss is how the GOP is perceived among people who look like me. The answer is that most people think Republicans are racist and scared of anyone that isn’t white. Being involved in party politics over the years, I know that most Republicans are not bigots. But perception tends to be reality and when you have Republicans leaders blocking immigration reform at all costs, the message that comes accross is that people of color are not welcome. Most conservatives and especially the reformers like Douthat will say that there needs to be a focus on jobs “for all.” There is this hope that saying that they support something for all will get the message across that the GOP is inclusive. But unless persons of color see specific acts by the party that benefit them, why on earth would they think that say a jobs bill is going to include them?
In his column, Douthat says that the nation’s Latinos are a leftward bunch and that passing an immigration bill only help elect more Democrats. How short sided. Constituencies can change over time. A group that votes one way now may not vote that way in the future. Take for example African Americans. A century ago, the GOP had the African American vote. Democrats were for the most part hostile to African Americans, so the votes went to the Republicans instead. Sometime around the 1930s, the solid lock on African Americans was broken and little by little they started voting for Democrats in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. Forty years later, the Democrats had a lock on the African American vote thanks to the party’s push for civil rights. No one could have imagined this a half-century before.
A vote for immigration reform may very well not make a big difference now. Hispanics will still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. However, a positive sign could have an effect years down the line.
But of course, for that to happen, you have to be willing to endure some short term loss. This is something the GOP is not willing to do.
Conservative reformers have some good ideas on how to make the GOP a better party policy-wise. But none of this will have a chance of coming into reality as long as the GOP hangs the “keep out” sign at America’s borders. America’s growing majority-minority won’t be a interested in voting for a party that doesn’t seem interested in them.