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Report: Why Do Elephants Put their Heads in the Sand?

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Updated January 2012 | Click here to download PDF

The Republican Party’s stance on immigration—and what it means for its candidates’ ability to compete for Latino voters—is shaping up as one of the major storylines this election cycle. 

As Republicans continue to embrace hard-right positions on immigration, the Party is distancing itself not only from the legacy of Ronald Reagan and other past Republican leaders, but also from Latino voters in numerous states that are shaping up to be key 2012 battlegrounds. 

The brand image of the Republican Party as hostile and unwelcoming to Latino voters—reinforced by the GOP’s embrace of harsh state laws like Alabama’s—threatens Republican competitiveness with Latino voters in 2012 and beyond.  Their failure to embrace a practical solution also sends a message to general-election voters that the Republican Party is more interested in political grand-standing than problem-solving.     

With immigration a minor issue for a majority of non-Latino voters, and a defining, personal issue for a majority of Latino voters, the GOP’s position on immigration is self-defeating.   

Read on for more on the Republican Party’s immigration stance in recent years, the positions embraced by current 2012 contenders, and the role immigration plays in influencing the Latino vote. 


The GOP on Immigration: An Anniversary and a Look Forward

November 2011 marked not only one year before the 2012 election, but also the 25-year anniversary of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted legal permanent residency to nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

With the prominent role immigration has played thus far in the 2012 election cycle, it is worth remembering the words of a cherished Republican icon, President Ronald Reagan, upon signing that law: “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society.”

President Reagan also famously referred back to his vision for America in his farewell address to the nation.  He called America a “shining city upon a hill,” saying, “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Such a policy approach and welcoming rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the current crop of Republican presidential contenders, most Republicans in Congress, and many Republican state leaders, all of whom continue to promote deportation-only policies backed by anti-immigrant rhetoric.  It says something about the current state of the Republican Party on immigration when a top-tier Republican presidential candidate like Herman Cain calls for an electrified fence and “real guns and real bullets” to deter border crossers, and then wonders why many aren’t laughing at his “joke.”

As Republican strategist Ana Navarro told POLITICO, “We have a unique opportunity to capitalize on a broken promise to the Latino community, and instead of capitalizing on that, we are fighting over who is tougher and meaner and stricter when it comes to immigration. We’re completely missing the boat.”

As we look forward to the 2012 election, and remember Ronald Reagan’s role in passing immigration legislation, it is notable how far right the Republican Party has moved on immigration.  This narrow approach will have significant long-term political costs for the Party of Reagan.

Running Up Against Demographics and Recent History

The Republican Party’s stance on immigration is especially curious due to the fact that both demographic changes and recent electoral history would suggest that the GOP should be moving toward a pro-immigrant policy stance.

The Republican anti-immigrant push flies in the face of four facts:

1.     The nation is undergoing massive demographic changes that are altering electoral maps and electorates;

2.     Latino voters do care about and vote on immigration issues;

3.     Recent electoral cycles have proven the dangers of embracing hard-line immigration stances; and

4.     Outside of small slivers of the electorate, most Americans want immigration solutions, not Republican extremism on immigration.

Even former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a leading architect of the Tea Party movement, seems to agree.  He said, “Who in the Republican Party was the genius that said that now that we have identified the fastest-growing demographic in America, let’s go out and alienate it?” Armey also drew a contrast between the immigration stance of President Reagan and the current state of the Party on immigration, noting “Republicans have got to get off this goofiness…Ronald Reagan said, ‘Tear down that wall.’ Tom Tancredo said, ‘Build that wall.’ Who’s right?”

Changing Demographics & Political Calculus

At the same time the Republican Party has moved to the right on immigration, the demographics of the nation have changed rapidly.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the Hispanic population increased by 15.2 million between 2000 and 2010 and accounted for more than half of the total U.S. population increase of 27.3 million. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, or four times the nation’s 9.7 percent growth rate.”  Even many of the traditionally Republican states which have gained political power and new congressional seats as a result of the 2010 Census have done so because of the growth of the Latino population within their states.

Unsurprisingly, these demographic changes are altering the political calculus of what it takes to assemble a winning electoral coalition.  Experts and strategists from both sides of the aisle agree: the Republican Party now needs to win at least 40% of the Latino vote in order to have a chance at winning a presidential election.  Matthew Dowd, an advisor and strategist to President George W. Bush, said in reference to Republican presidential candidates, “If they don’t get back to a place where they are getting roughly 40 percent net of the Hispanic vote, there is no way they can ever win.”

2012 battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico all have sizeable and growing Latino voter populations.

Latino Voters Care About Immigration

Despite assertions to the contrary from Rep. Lamar Smith and anti-immigration “think tanks” like the Center for Immigration Studies, Latino voters see immigration as a core priority.  It is an issue that affects their families, their future and their sense of being fully accepted in America.

In June 2010, a LatinoMetrics poll on behalf of the Hispanic Federation and LULAC asked Latino voters for their “top issue of personal concern.” Immigration, at 24%, ranked a close second to jobs and the economy at 25%. In July 2010, polling for NALEO by Dr. Ricardo Ramirez of the University of Southern California asked, “What general issues would be most important to you in deciding whom to vote for?”  Immigration ranked first at 27%, with the economy and jobs at 23.5%.

Polling has consistently shown that immigration is among the top voting issues for Latinos.  In a 2010 election eve poll conducted by Latino Decisions in eight states, 83% of Latino voters said that immigration was an important issue in their voting decisions, and fully 60% said it was the most important issue or one of the most important issues.  Polling of Latino voters in twelve states by Bendixen & Amandi found that 72% of Latino voters would not even consider voting for a congressional candidate who was in favor of forcing most undocumented immigrants to leave the country (only 19% of Latino voters said they would even consider it).

In polling released in December 2011 by Latino Decisions and impreMedia, Latino voters ranked immigration reform along with the economy/jobs as “the most important issues facing the Latino community that [they] think Congress and the President should address” (with “jobs” and “the economy” getting a combined 43%, and immigration getting 42%).

Furthermore, the Republican nominee will start the 2012 general election campaign at a serious disadvantage with Latino voters.  In December 2011, only 9% of Latino voters said they were certain to vote for the Republican presidential nominee, and only 20% of Latino voters said they were certain, likely, or even leaning toward doing so.  In November 2011, when asked how well the two major parties were doing in reaching out to Hispanics, only 13% of Latino voters said that the Republican Party was “doing a good job” with its outreach.  Forty-two percent said Republicans didn’t care too much about Latinos, and 30% saw the Party as openly hostile to their community.  For comparison, 45% of Latinos said Democrats were doing a good job; 32% said they didn’t care too much; and only 8% described them as hostile.

Not Learning from Recent History

It is often said that the most important poll is the one that happens on Election Day.  Latino voter turnout and support for Democratic candidates, aided by Republican demagoguery on the immigration issue, were large factors in the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006; President Obama’s victory and congressional Democrats’ success in 2008; and in stopping the Republican wave from taking over the Senate in 2010.  Now, the Republican Party appears to be ratcheting up its anti-immigrant bona fides just in time for the 2012 elections.

Latinos voted for the Democratic presidential nominee over the Republican by a margin of 59% to 40% in 2004 (Kerry-Bush) and 67% to 31% in 2008 (Obama-McCain).  By 2010, Latinos voted for Democrats over Republicans by roughly 75%-25%, or a 3-1 margin, according to election eve polling of Latino voters conducted by Latino Decisions in eight key states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NM, NV, and TX).  Overall, Latino immigrant voters (foreign-born, Latinos who are now naturalized citizens) supported Democrats by even larger margins.

The salience and political importance of the issue was evident in several key 2010 races.  For example, Meg Whitman’s fumbling hypocrisy on immigration marked the turning point in her losing campaign for governor of California, and offered a case study of the dangers of allowing Republican primary politics to drive general election strategy.  And in one of the most-watched match-ups of the 2010 cycle, Sharron Angle of Nevada bet the farm on her anti-immigrant wedge strategy—and lost handily to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who leaned into the immigration issue and won his race with 90% of the Latino vote.

In October 2011, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid touted the importance of appealing to Latino voters in the West and said “I would not be the majority leader in the United States Senate today, but for the Hispanics in Nevada.”

Non-Latinos – Including Republicans – Want Immigration Solutions, Not GOP Extremism

One would think by listening to the Republican presidential candidates that immigration is a top issue for the electorate, and that voters overwhelmingly oppose common sense immigration reform.  But neither is the case – even among swing voters and Republicans.

In fact, there is a wide disparity in the level of importance Latinos and non-Latinos place on the immigration issue, making the current GOP position all the more illogical.  For most Latinos, immigration is a motivating issue.  For most non-Latinos, it is not.  In fact, in Gallup national polling, only 3% of respondents named immigration as the “most important problem facing the country” in October 2011; only 4% named it as such in Gallup’s September 2011 poll.

What’s more, the vast majority of voters support comprehensive immigration reform—just like Latino voters.  For example, a recent Fox News poll—a news outlet not renowned for its pro-immigration coverage—found that 66% of Americans agreed that the federal government should “allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship” if they meet certain requirements. Only 19% favored sending “all illegal immigrants back to their home country.”

December 2011 polling from Pew Research Center found that when asked what the federal government’s priorities should be regarding immigration, 67% agreed that a path to citizenship should be a top priority.  A plurality (43%) felt that both border security and a path to citizenship should be equal priorities—as they have been in all proposals for comprehensive immigration reform–while 24% said a path to citizenship should be the sole priority.

Even in Arizona, a state with a national reputation as leading the charge to enact anti-immigrant policies, an overwhelming majority of voters favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are longtime residents. An Arizona State University poll in November 2011 found that 78% of Arizona voters would favor legislation that put such immigrants “on a path to becoming American citizens.”

Not only is the general electorate far more moderate than the Republican presidential field on immigration, but so are Republican primary voters themselves.  In December 2011 polls by the Washington Post/ABC News and the New York Times/CBS News, likely Iowa caucus-goers were asked to name the candidates they trusted most to handle immigration.  In both polls, Newt Gingrich was the most commonly named candidate, followed by Rick Perry—the two candidates who have been most heavily attacked by their opponents for being “soft” on the issue.

The fact is, candidates could appeal to both Latino and non-Latino voters with the same common sense, practical policy—if only they could see past the loudest, angriest voices during the primary campaigns.

Read the full report here