As the immigration reform debate appears to be entering its end game phase in the Senate the House has signaled that they will not take up the higher chamber’s 1,200 page bill. Buried in the labyrinth that is the Senate bill are special deals for interest groups, a path to citizenship (takes at least 10 years) and starts on day 1 of passage. The bill also doubles the number of border security agents and increases fencing and monitoring on the Southern border.
Republican and Democratic strategists as well as the peanut gallery (the media) think that passing immigration reform is the quickest way for the GOP to revamp its tarnished brand among Hispanics and Asians. But the GOP’s constituency has always been largely white, older and married. This is not to say that the national GOP can keep going on in Presidential elections with the support it has. But immigration reform does not appear to be an instant panacea for the party’s ills. Polls have shown the Senate bill’s support dropping, only a plurality support a path to citizenship and a solid majority support border security.
Republicans have rarely handled the issue of immigration well. In 1993 Republican Pete Wilson alienated Hispanics in California with his illegal immigrant initiative that would have denied public services to this group. In 2005-2006 then President Bush pushed for immigration reform and was largely derailed by his own party which controlled Congress. After the 2010 election Republican legislators and Governors in numerous states pushed anti-illegal immigration laws and initiatives that while might have been intended well sent a message of punishment to the Latino community.
The national GOP could take some serious lessons from these efforts. Arizona, a state that until recently had not dealt with the issue of illegal immigration initiated a firestorm with its passage of SB 1070. The bill allowed for police to ask about the citizenship of Hispanics among other items. The law actually galvanized support to remove the state’s Senate President and likely hurt GOP Congressional candidates in 2012 after redistricting.
Texas, on the other hand, has been dealing with illegal immigration since the 1970’s. Unlike more recent red states that have only recently started to deal with the issue in a law enforcement manner, Texas has worked to meld law enforcement, border security and incorporation into their laws. This appears to have had an electoral impact. While the black vote in the state is solidly blue, 38% of Hispanics voted for Governor Rick Perry in 2010. The Hispanic business community in the state appears to be even more Republican, a far cry from similar Hispanic business communities in Southern states.
The reasons are fairly simple and should make the national GOP follow the example of Texas and not Arizona. Texas Republicans are largely careful in the rhetoric they use to discuss the issue. Until recently, the rhetoric from Arizona’s Governor and legislature was inflammatory and derogatory. Texas Republicans also have offered incentive programs to illegals. These programs are not traditional welfare programs but rather more job-placement services and in state tuition offers for illegal immigrant children to go to college. Arizona, on the other hand has tried to deny illegals access to any public services and in state tuition is not offered.
There is a remarkable difference between the way Texas and Arizona have handled border security. Texas has used the natural geography of the region to their advantage. They also have used a mix of aerial and ground units to limit the number of illegals coming across the border. In Arizona, the threat of stationing the National Guard on the border was made by the Governor.
To be fair, many objected to the process the state of Arizona took on illegal immigration. Their actions were quick and activists complained it trampled on individuals Constitutional rights (never-mind non-citizens do not get the same rights as citizens). Texas has been careful to avoid these kinds of issues and it has helped the state GOP make inroads with the Hispanic community.
National Republicans can learn lessons from these two cases. Right now the national GOP appears to think pandering to this voting bloc will win their votes. It will not. Nor will a border security only approach work. The national GOP needs to work on how they discuss the issue, continue outreach to the Hispanic community and also work on integrating Hispanics into American society. More highly skilled visas and work permits would be hugely beneficial to immigrants and their kids. Likewise would tougher border enforcement measures that use all the technology at the country’s disposal to seal the border.
There is much the national GOP can learn from the state of Texas on immigration. Hopefully they will follow Texas, not Arizona’s example and continue to push for tougher border security measures, integrating immigrants into American society and work on finding what these voters care about. The GOP is the party of immigrants and instead has been painted as being anti-immigrant. Following the example of Texas would allow the GOP to start to break that caricature.