Immigration Reform 2013: There is No Silver Bullet for Republicans’ Hispanic Problem


It is no secret that the Republican Party has a problem winning the support of Hispanic voters. Governor Mitt Romney managed to earn the support of only a paltry 27% of Hispanics in the 2012 presidential election, according to CNN exit polling. That figure is down from President George W. Bush's 41% showing in 2004, the most any GOP candidate for president has managed since the advent of modern polling. Conventional wisdom seems to point to a two-part solution for Republicans: push for comprehensive immigration reform and make Florida Senator Marco Rubio the public face of that effort. But neither Rubio nor immigration reform are silver bullets for the Republican Party’s challenges in the Hispanic community.

Although the GOP has seen several Hispanics elected to high office since 2010, including Governors Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval and Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rubio has become the most prominent by virtue of his communication skills and compelling life story. Chris Cillizza, a blogger at theWashington Post, described him as "the new leader of the Republican Party" on the eve of his response to the President’s 2013 State of the Union address. Around the same time, TIME put him on their cover and anointed him "The Republican Savior."

The rise of Rubio has coincided with a bipartisan push for comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the Senate, led in part on the Republican side by Rubio. And conservative pundits have high hopes for the outcome, with Charles Krauthammer writing, "Border fence plus amnesty … Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016. It would transform the landscape. He'd win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it."

Let’s dive a little deeper into Krauthammer's thinking. In the same piece, the columnist also opines that Hispanics "should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example) … The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants."

This is an alarming level of intellectual laziness. First, extensive polling belies Krauthammer's stereotype of Hispanics as a socially conservative, "natural Republican constituency." 2012 election exit polling suggests that two-thirds of Hispanic voters favor legal abortion in most or all cases and 59% support legalizing gay marriage. A national poll this year found that 48% of Hispanics have a favorable opinion of Obamacare, compared to just 19% with an unfavorable opinion. And Pew Research polling indicates that 75% of Hispanics favor a larger government with more services.

Second, it is misleading to paint Hispanics as single-issue voters. At the eve of last year's election, a Pew Hispanic Center survey found that immigration was only the 5th most important issue to registered Hispanic voters, behind education, jobs and the economy, healthcare, and the federal budget deficit, and only 4th among all Hispanics. The issue has doubtlessly grown in importance in the community as Senate immigration reform efforts have been publicized, but the point remains the same Republicans cannot assume that immigration reform is the only obstacle to a flood of Hispanic voter support.

Furthermore, Senator Rubio's appeal to Hispanics is broadly overstated. Like all constituencies, the Hispanics are not a monolithic voting bloc and Cuban-Americans are very different from Mexican-Americans, who are different from Dominican-Americans, and so on and so forth. In other words, not all Hispanics automatically identify with Senator Rubio. In fact, a poll last month reveals that 60% of Hispanic voters would support Hillary Clinton, over 24% for Senator Rubio in a hypothetical 2016 presidential election matchup. Non-Hispanic Republican Chris Christie would only lose the Hispanic vote by an additional three point margin, 23% to 62%.

All of this is not to say that Marco Rubio isn't an attractive presidential candidate or Republican pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform isn't the right thing to do he is and it is.

The senator is a charismatic communicator and it is to his credit that he's tackling such a controversial issue despite the potential of backlash from a Republican base that has thus far idolized him. And the Republican Party could do a lot worse in choosing messengers to the Hispanic community; Senator Ted Cruz, for example, admits his Spanish is "lousy" and told Telemundo last year that he doesn't "think the Hispanic community is behind efforts for amnesty." Yet amnesty as part of a broader package including tougher border protection and the requirement to pay a fine and back taxes, among other provisions is sensible policy. President Ronald Reagan set the stage for Republicans by granting amnesty to roughly 3 million illegal immigrants through signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law in 1986. If his statement at the time is any indication, he did so because he believed it to be the right solution to a pressing problem. "I am pleased to sign this bill into law," President Reagan declared at the signing ceremony at the Statue of Liberty. "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. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."

Ultimately, Republicans should not expect making inroads in the Hispanic community to be either quick or easy, and Republican suggestions to the contrary are abdications of responsibility. It will require sustained outreach, not just the creation of temporary, flashy "coalition groups" in election cycles. It will require greater understanding of and appreciation for the issues plural that Hispanics care about. It will require thoughtful messaging and nuanced policy proposals and not the boiling down of complex issues to "self-deportation." Achieving bipartisan immigration reform will likely help and Senator Rubio deserves support for his efforts, but the GOP must do more if it is to compete for Hispanic voters.