GOP presidential candidates dig their own electoral graves on immigration

Robert W. Glover, University of Maine.

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on September 15, 2015.

Hardly a day passes in this presidential campaign without a Republican candidate weighing in on how to “fix” immigration in the U.S. There was Donald Trump’s call to build an impregnable wall on our southern border. Then Scott Walker proposed a wall on our northern border — and quickly backpedaled. Chris Christie suggested tracking immigrants like FedEx packages. I feel as if we’re all waiting for someone to propose a Stephen King-inspired dome.

These comments may rally those who want simplistic explanations of immigration as a policy issue and simpler policy solutions. But these are disastrous statements if the Republican Party wants to be a viable party nationally and represent the interests of increasingly important Latino constituencies.

Shifting demographics over the past few decades have led to changing population distributions nationally, with increasing concentrations of Latinos in important electoral battleground states. If 2008 and 2012 have taught us anything, it is that Republicans have been perceived as largely oblivious to the interests of Latinos and their increasing political power. Latinos overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in both elections, with Mitt Romney capturing Republicans’ smallest share of the Latino vote — just 27 percent — since 1996.

But what we are seeing is the tip of the political iceberg. The Pew Hispanic Center reports the Latino voting population is likely to double by 2030. This summer, it was confirmed that Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California. Texas might not be far behind, and this could result in tectonic political shifts in a state that has not given its electoral votes to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Republicans need to demonstrate that they understand and care about the issues that matter to Latino communities. Foremost among these issues is immigration.

Republicans have assumed for too long that they can capture the Latino vote on “values” issues. This assumption is rooted in the idea that Latino voters are fairly conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage because of high rates of Catholicism. Recent data and analysis show this assumption is simply wrong. Younger Latinos coming into the electorate tend to be less religious and, consequently, less supportive of a conservative social agenda than generations past. Appealing to “values” will garner Republicans a shrinking percentage of the Latino electorate, as even conservative commentators acknowledged in the aftermath of defeat in 2012.

Republicans could potentially suffer as a result of Congressional failures to pass immigration reform. President Obama made passing immigration reform a centerpiece of both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Although a bipartisan, comprehensive, immigration reform package was put forth in 2013 and received support in the Senate, it died in the House largely because of the efforts of Republicans to break the package into pieces. They wanted “enforcement” as a precondition for measures such as visa reform and putting some of those here illegally on a protracted “path to citizenship.” If Latinos interpret this as an obstructionist attempt to derail meaningful immigration reform, it is Republicans who will shoulder the largest share of the blame and suffer at the polls.

Additionally, the harsh rhetoric employed by some Republican candidates thus far has frustrated many Latinos. They feel racially profiled and stigmatized, with their very existence in the country crassly politicized. If we go by the numbers, the worst offender is undoubtedly Donald Trump. In a recent Gallup poll, 65 percent of Latinos rated Trump unfavorably. Extreme measures such as building walls along the border and engaging in mass deportation are unpopular positions among the electorate as a whole but deeply unpopular among Latinos.

What is perhaps most troubling is that a major American political party can be so out of touch with the needs, concerns and interests of a vital and growing constituency. All Americans deserve a set of practical alternatives offering serious answers to challenging policy questions, rather than divisive and unrealistic talking points. Perhaps another stinging presidential defeat is what it will take for Republicans to make this realization.

Robert W. Glover is an assistant professor of honors and political science at the University of Maine. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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