RNC Chair Reince Priebus’s 2012 post-mortem report following Mitt Romney’s obliteration seemed pretty clear in its message to Republicans: We must pass immigration reform if we’re going to make amends with the Latino voters who defeated us, and we must pass it now.
“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform…If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
But now it appears everyone but Republicans actually bothered to read it.
A trio of recent pieces highlight the drastic lurch to the right Presidential candidates have taken on immigration — particularly after Donald Trump’s entrance to the race — and resounding silence when it comes to condemning the candidate’s racist rhetoric about Latinos and immigrants.
Call it, “the Trump Effect.”
When Donald Trump quite literally took center stage at last week’s Republican debate, candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had as best an opportunity as ever to confront Trump on his extremist rhetoric.
It could have been a prime-time moment in front of a record-setting televised debate audience for either to say that Trump’s claim that Mexicans are rapists was disgustingly false, and that his mass-deportation plan to round up and kick out the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants was both unrealistic and inhumane.
Instead both — perhaps fearing a backlash from the small-yet-vocal anti-immigrant primary base fueling Trump’s meteoric rise and blindly guiding the GOP on immigration policy — said nothing.
What’s most worrying about Thursday’s first Republican presidential debate wasn’t Donald Trump’s outrageous remarks about Mexico and Mexicans, but the fact that none of the other nine contenders had the courage to confront him with a vigorous statement setting the record straight on immigration and criticizing racism.
Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who took some distance from Trump’s remarks on immigration — seemed to go out of their way not to forcefully challenge Trump’s populist demagoguery, which blames illegal immigration from Mexico for much of what’s wrong in this country.
In case you missed it, Trump repeated his previous claims that the United States is being flooded with undocumented immigrants (in fact, their numbers have plummeted in recent years, according to U.S. Census figures) and that Mexico is sending to the United States drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
When Fox News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump for specific evidence that Mexico is “sending” these criminals across the border, Trump couldn’t respond.
When Wallace pressed him again, Trump said “The border patrol… people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening.” Trump did not provide one single name, nor study, nor document to support his allegation.
But none of the Republican hopefuls raised their hands to call Trump’s bluff on immigration. None of them cited recent figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showing that the flow of Mexican immigrants to the United States has fallen from about 400,000 per year a decade ago to 125,000 nowadays.
None of them confronted Trump with Census figures showing that there are already more undocumented immigrants coming from China than from Mexico.
As Oppenheimer notes, even Bush’s half-hearted attempt to bring some reason to the debate was watered-down by a factually-incorrect claim that the border is out of control:
None of them, with the possible exception of Bush, made a thorough argument that the majority of the 34 million people of Mexican origin in the United States are good, hard-working people. Bush said most undocumented immigrants “want to provide for their family,” and immediately added, “but we need to control our border.”
Granted, Bush said that he supports a conditional path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, but he simultaneously courted anti-immigration zealots by declaring himself against an “amnesty.” Rubio, in turn, told Trump that most undocumented immigrants are not coming from Mexico, but from Central America, and added that “I also believe we need a fence.”
The whole cast of Republican hopefuls tacitly accepted Trump’s false premise that the United States is suffering from an avalanche of criminal illegal immigrants, and that its first priority should be to “secure the border.”
The reason none of Trump’s contenders dared to rip apart his narrative on immigration is, of course, that they don’t want to antagonize conservative Republicans who vote in the primaries who basically agree with Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric.
Nationally, only 39 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mexico, down from 47 percent before 2008, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Trump, like most nationalist-populists, is tapping into the resentment of many Americans who are looking for a scapegoat for their economic problems after the 2008 U.S. economic crisis.
“The good thing about what Trump did is that [his comments] shined a light to the level of the problem of racism,” actress Selma Hayek said only half-jokingly in an interview with Fusion’s Jorge Ramos. “The minute he attacked the Mexicans, his numbers went up.”
My opinion: Trump’s Republican contenders may think that they did the right thing by avoiding an all-out confrontation with Trump on immigration, but they shot themselves in the foot.
They came across — some more than others — as a group of spineless politicians who don’t have the guts to speak out when a demagogue insults 34 million people of Mexican origin, many of whom will vote in the 2016 elections. Their response was pitiful and self-destructive.
In the unlikely — but possible — event that Trump wins the Republican nomination, the Republican Party is almost guaranteed to lose the election, because there is no way that Trump could win the 42 percent to 47 percent of the Hispanic vote that pollsters say the party will need to win.
And if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination and decides to run as an independent, as he admits to be considering, he will siphon off millions of Republican votes that will help Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democratic candidate will be, become the next president. Either way, Trump’s Republican contenders lost by not standing up for decency and against bigotry.
As David Leopold notes in his piece, “Anti-immigrant debate shows GOP still hasn’t learned from 2012 defeat,” Trump and his base don’t represent the pro-immigrant views of the majority of Americans. But in bending to the will of this small, anti-immigrant faction of primary voters, the GOP could be headed for yet another repeat of Romney’s 2012 defeat:
On November 7, 2012, the idea of Republicans embracing comprehensive immigration reform was a no-brainer. That was the day after Mitt Romney got hammered by Hispanic voters who rejected his candidacy for president by a 44 point margin.
GOP leaders stunned by the major electoral smackdown couldn’t get to fixing the immigration system fast enough. “While I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws,” Speaker John Boehner said the next day, “I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”
Fast forward to last night in Cleveland.
“We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly,” Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump declared to resounding applause. Sadly, and dangerously for the GOP, that’s what has become of the party’s official platform on immigration.
There were 10 Republican hopefuls on stage last night. Not one took issue with Trump’s ludicrous contention that the immigration problems in the United States can be solved by building a wall. Not one pointed out that illegal immigration has fallen to its lowest levels in 20 years and that the nation’s undocumented population has dropped by 1 million since 2007. And, sadly, not one offered a detailed, thoughtful policy proposal in response to Trump’s doubling down on his hateful message about Mexican immigrants.
To the contrary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is by many considered a thoughtful, moderate presidential contender, pandered to Trump on immigration, declaring that he “is touching a nerve because people want the wall to be built. They want to see an end to illegal immigration. They want to see it, and we all do. But we all have different ways of getting there. And you’re going to hear from all of us tonight about what our ideas are.”
To be fair, some Republican candidates alluded to fixing the immigration system, but only after “securing the border” – which has become more nuanced politician-speak for “we’ll never do immigration reform because we can always claim the border is not secure enough.” Jeb Bush, who’s gone further than any of his GOP rivals in suggesting he’d support comprehensive immigration reform, reiterated his support for some sort of “earned legal status” for undocumented immigrants, but was disappointingly short on specifics.
Unfortunately, despite Kasich’s promise earlier in the evening, none of the GOP candidates outlined serious proposals to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.
Nor is the GOP’s failure on immigration confined to the presidential candidates. Senate Majority LeaderMitch McConnell declared yesterday that there would be no immigration reform this year, claiming that “the atmosphere for dealing with that issue in the wake of” President Obama’s executive actions on deportations “is not appropriate” – a position that makes little sense given that Obama’s executive immigration actions have been enjoined by a federal judge at the request of GOP governors and attorneys general.
The refusal to embrace or even talk about comprehensive immigration reform demonstrates a major disconnect with Republican constituents across the country. Despite the hard-line presidential campaign rhetoric, recent polling shows the GOP candidates are at odds with the majority of their voters. Recent polling has found 53% to 55% of Republican voters favor some sort of path to earned legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. That means that most Republicans are ultimately pragmatic; they want immigration policy solutions, not pandering to the extremists in the party.
The takeaway is clear: When it comes to immigration, the GOP candidates didn’t do the party’s eventual nominee any favors last night. It’s one thing to veer to the right during a Republican presidential primary to capture the base of the party. But the GOP presidential hopefuls – including real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump – would be wise to heed the words of Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, who recently cautioned the GOP not to repeat her former boss’s mistake on immigration. Romney’s championing of the mean-spirited, inhumane and unworkable policy of “self-deportation” may have helped earn him the support of party extremists, but it drove him over the cliff in the general election.
In his piece “A Republican broadside on immigrants,” Lawrence Downes of the New York Times reminds us that for many of the nation’s Latino and immigrant voters, the tone has been set when it comes to how the Republican Party views this relentless and booming demographic:
Latinos of America, there you have it. The Republican presidential campaign has nothing good to offer you on immigration.
One if them — Jeb Bush — sees unauthorized immigrants as human beings. The rest of the candidates, led by Donald Trump in Thursday night’s debate, sees them as a nation-within-a-nation of drug dealers, rapists, killers, security threats, freeloaders — contributing nothing, deserving nothing. They are a problem to be contained, starting at the southern border, which must be immediately sealed so that more of their kind don’t get through.
There has to be a 2,000-mile wall (Mr. Trump, Marco Rubio and others), enhanced with interior electronic tracking systems (Mr. Rubio, Mr. Bush), and the only reason the wall hasn’t been built yet is the country is too stupid (Mr. Trump) and in thrall to the “Washington cartel” (Ted Cruz). States and cities that don’t sign up with the federal immigration dragnet should be punished (Mr. Bush and others).
Just to unnerve Latino voters some more, there was an ad during the debate from Numbers USA, an immigration-restriction organization founded by a white nationalist.
The most intense lies and hate came from Mr. Trump, who kept pushing his story that illegal immigration is a Mexican government conspiracy to rid itself of rapists and killers. But then Mike Huckabee talked about his plan to save Social Security and Medicare by taxing “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers — all the people that are freeloading off the system.”
(In truth, unauthorized immigrants are propping up entitlement programs, by putting in billions of dollars more than they take out. But Mr. Huckabee finds immigrants living here outside the law sinful and disgusting.)
Mr. Bush, at least, stood by his claim that unauthorized immigrants are motivated by something more human. “I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option,” he said. “They want to provide for their family.”
But he, too, went with the border-first thing, and condemned “sanctuary cities.”
It’s early in the race, and sooner or later the Republicans may have to be pressed to answer the critical question: What do we do with 11 million people already here? Mr. Trump wants to kick them all out — a Trail of Tears for the 21st century — and let “the good ones” back in.
He hasn’t had to answer for that and other repulsive remarks. The campaign hasn’t yet graduated beyond infotainment – it’s a reality show disconnected from reality. It may get more serious. But the tone has been set. The red meat has been thrown, and it’s rotting.