Worried About Alienating Latinos, GOP Candidates Attack Syrian Refugees Instead

A camp with Syrian refugees; A father holding his son

As governments and politicians around the world struggle for the appropriate response to a series of terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of at least 129 people and injured hundreds more, the crisis has given Republican presidential candidates an unanticipated opportunity: the ability to appease their anti-immigrant base without alienating Latino voters.

"President [Barack] Obama and Hillary Clinton's idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America — it is nothing less than lunacy," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told Fox News less than 24 hours after the attacks. Billionaire front-runner Donald Trump claimed Syrian refugees are potential "Trojan horses" in wait. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared he would allow Syrians entry to the U.S. if "you could prove you're a Christian." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told radio host Hugh Hewitt, "I don't think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point."

This line of thinking — that Muslim immigrants pose a severe and sustained security threat to the U.S. — is not unlike the reasoning that drove the anti-Latino sentiment that defined the summer stage of the campaign. In June, Trump infamously kicked off his campaign by asserting that immigrants from Mexico are "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists," earning the instantaneous ire of Latino voters across the U.S. Following Trump's example — and the sentiment of the Republican Party's base — members of the field's more conservative flank have doubled down on unfeasibly aggressive immigration policies.

But as Trump's position has placed other candidates with more complicated stances on the issue of immigration on the defensive, the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the siege of Paris have presented a potentially winning strategy for Republican presidential hopefuls. Rather than concentrating on the large and politically organized population of immigrants from Latin America, Republican candidates are now shifting focus to an immigrant community with no political power: Syrian Muslims.

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A losing issue for the GOP: Until the Paris terror attacks, the unshakeable focus of the current crop of presidential hopefuls on undocumented immigrants from Latin America spelled a potential electoral disaster for the Republican Party.

Numbering more than 53 million, or 17.1% of the U.S. population, in 2013, America's Latino population has become a more consequential voting block with every election cycle, and in 2016 its role in shaping the nation's government may move from being merely influential to downright decisive. Data collated by Latino Decisions, a leading Latino political opinion research organization, indicates the eventual Republican nominee will need to win over as many as 47% of Latino voters in 2016 — nearly double what Mitt Romney was able to muster in 2012.

Many conservatives are realizing that the anti-immigrant sentiment of the mid-aughts is coming home to roost — just as the party's leadership predicted it would. Fifty-seven days after Obama's second inauguration, the battered Republican Party released a 100-page document detailing how everything had gone so terribly wrong. That document, titled the Growth & Opportunity Project, was a blistering appraisal of the party's inability to court nonwhite, non-male, non-boomer voters, a tear-down of its Wild West debate atmosphere and antiquated data and analytics infrastructure. In particular, however, the abject failure of the Republican National Committee to curb rhetoric on immigration was seen as an existential threat to the future of the GOP.

The document's authors strongly urged the party's leadership to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. "If we do not," the authors warned, "our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

John Raoux/AP

An artful dodge: The Trump campaign's fixation on immigration helped bring the issue to the forefront of topics addressed by his fellow candidates. Instead of shying away from remarks that immigrants from Mexico were drug-peddling sex criminals, casino magnate Trump doubled down on the characterization, rocketing to a first-place streak in national polling that has remained nearly unbroken since mid-July.

Republican voters love Trump's immigration stance as much as Latino voters despise it: Forty-nine percent of Republican or Republican-leaning independents polled by Roll Call say that he is the candidate whom they trust the most to handle the issue.

With pressure from their base and the front-runner increasing, both Bush and fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio have checked their barometers before pushing too strongly for immigration reform during the primary. Once trumpeted as a sign of a new dawn for the Republican Party on immigration issues, Rubio's sponsorship of a landmark bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants went up in flames. The first-term senator eventually renounced his own bill, declaring in February that a conversation about immigration reform can never happen until voters can be assured that "future illegal immigration will be controlled," according to the Hill.

Bush, meanwhile, still clings to the idea that Republican voters will be able to swallow a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who fulfill a long list of obligations like paying back taxes and fines, obtaining work permits and learning English. But Bush's more circumspect approach to the immigration issue didn't stop his campaign from releasing a six-point plan that calls for militarization of border police, deportation of all immigrants who overstay their visas and crackdowns on so-called "sanctuary cities."

Santi Palacios/AP

Syrians are the new Latinos? In contrast with Latinos, however, Arab-Americans are small in number and possess almost zero political influence. Representing only 0.5% of the American population, according to U.S. Census data, 94% of Arab-Americans are inhabiting large metropolitan areas where their political impact is even more watered down. Aside from the notable exception of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East, the direct political influence of Arab-Americans in the U.S. has been largely minimal.

At the same time, public sentiment towards Arab-Americans and Muslims (not necessarily the same thing) in the U.S. is disproportionately negative, particularly within the Republican Party. Fifty-one percent of likely U.S. voters surveyed say that they would not be willing to vote for a Muslim president, with Republicans more than twice as likely as Democrats — 73% to 35% — to say they would not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate. A full 80% of Republicans think Islam encourages violence more than most other religions.

Republican presidential candidates have courted votes from that group in earnest: In September, Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson said that being a Muslim is incompatible with being president of the United States. "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," the retired pediatric neurosurgeon said on NBC's Meet the Press. Cruz, defending his proposed bill to bar non-Christian refugees from entering the United States, told reporters in South Carolina that unlike Muslims, "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror." (Eric Rudolph, the Ku Klux Klan, both sides in Ireland and Guy Fawkes presumably excepted.)

Providing refuge for those fleeing a civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives has become so toxic that on Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 289 to 137 to approve a bill that would bar refugees from Syria and Iraq from entering the U.S. unless they passed a background-check process so stringent that it may be impossible to implement. The measure passed with near-unanimous support from congressional Republicans and nearly 50 Democrats crossing the aisle. The bill may only be a first legislative salvo against Middle Eastern refugees: In an interview with Yahoo News, Trump expressed an openness (since solidified) to the idea of creating a national registry of all Muslims in the U.S.

Attempts at a pushback by the White House have been increasingly stern, with little effect. On Monday, President Barack Obama called Cruz's desire to ban refugees of Syria's four-year civil war from American shores "shameful," a "dark impulse" antithetical to the nation's long history as a destination for immigrants. He reiterated those comments on Wednesday, accusing the 31 governors and 14 candidates who have announced their opposition to at least some Syrian refugees of being "scared of widows and orphans."

If the increasing volume and virulence of anti-resettlement rhetoric from Republican candidates is any indication, however, fear of "widows and orphans" will be a useful political tool in the months leading up to the first Republican presidential primaries — and cheerfully used.