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Immigration Reform an Opportunity for Republicans to Attract Latinos... and Millennials

05/30/2013 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013
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When explaining why the Republican Party would be better off supporting immigration reform, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said, "What (immigration reform) does is it puts us on a level playing field to compete for (Latino) votes."

It's a simple political fact that has stood the test of time: Constituencies will tend to support a party or candidate if they believe that party or candidate has their best interests at heart. That tendency hasn't always hurt the Republican Party. In fact, most of the time it's helped it.

In the 1860s under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the young Republican Party ascended to the majority in part by building a coalition aligned with the free labor ideology, including ending slavery. By the presidential election of 1868, Republican Ulysses S. Grant won by a landslide (214 out of 294 electoral votes) with strong support from newly-freed African-American voters.

Additionally, despite widely-held views that young voters lean Democratic, Republican standard-bearer Ronald Reagan won by landslides in 1980 and 1984 with the support of voters under 30. In 1984, President Reagan won the youth vote by a whopping 20 points as unemployment dipped and wages rose, and young workers prospered. A majority of the '80s young Americans have since become reliable Republican voters.

Fast forward 28 years and Reagan's Republican Party faces a conundrum. They have lost two recent presidential elections and the prospects of reclaiming the White House look dim. The GOP has lost support from a fast-changing electorate, one that's becoming increasingly younger, more diverse, and more supportive of equal rights.

What's the party to do?

Clearly Republican Sens. McCain, Jeff Flake (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Marco Rubio (FL) have hit on an answer to this question. Realizing their party can turn around their political prospects by appealing to Latinos -- the fastest growing racial group in the nation -- the senators embarked on a bipartisan effort with four fellow Democratic colleagues to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

However, the GOP should also begin addressing their party's difficulty with attracting more voters like me, Millennials (those born since 1981) -- a rising voting block that has voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent elections. Not only are my peers voting in larger numbers for Democrats, but more young voters are voting, period. Millennial turnout has approached 50 percent in each of the last three Presidential elections, and President Obama trounced Governor Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin among my generation in 2012.

If Republicans want to improve their chances with Millennial voters, they must to act now to support issues we are passionate about. And one of those generational issues is LGBT equality.

Just how strong is support for LGBT rights? More than 70 percent of young Americans support marriage equality -- including a growing majority of young Republicans. A majority of Latinos (64 percent) favor that any immigration reform passed by Congress includes LGBT partner sponsorships. Additionally, 52 percent of my fellow Hispanics now favor equal rights for LGBT couples, a strong turnaround from the 56 percent that opposed LGBT marriage rights just seven years ago. I've experienced the result of this dramatic change first hand after coming out to family, friends and colleagues last year. Their response was overwhelmingly positive.

With these numbers rising fast, Congressional Republicans' continued opposition to all pro-equality legislation is political malpractice.

Immigration reform is the Republican Party's chance to turn things around. Next month, the U.S. Senate will consider amendments by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their long-tern foreign partners for green cards. The GOP can begin leveling the playing field to compete for young voters by supporting Leahy's amendments.

Republicans waited until they were trounced in the 2012 election before deciding it was time to tackle immigration reform. But the party doesn't have to wait for the same fate in 2016 to decide to change course on LGBT rights. Simply by supporting Senator Leahy's amendment and the broader immigration reform bill, Republicans can begin to turn things around now. The GOP can still compete for Millennial voters, but Republicans must "level the playing field," as Sen. McCain put it, and in June they have the opportunity to begin doing just that.