California Republicans are rightly worried about their future in the state. Even as the GOP tapped into the national Tea Party zeitgeist and achieved a stunning victory in mid-term elections, the party received a shellacking in California, one delivered, in large part, by a growing Latino electorate concerned about the harsh attitudes on immigration offered up and down the Republican ticket.
Seldom in politics do you get a chance for a quick redo -- but one is coming. Sometime in the lame duck session of Congress, the House and Senate are slated to take a vote on the Dream Act, legislation that would allow young people who entered the country illegally a path to citizenship.
To be eligible for the Dream Act, one would have to have arrived before the age of 16 and have finished high school and completed some college or military service. Opponents fret that this will encourage more illegal immigration; proponents argue that these young people did not make the choice to come illegally and could contribute mightily to our American future.
But forget about the policy questions and think about the politics. The Dream Act -- unlike other aspects of immigration policy -- actually has widespread support amongst Californians. A November 2010 LA Times/USC College poll showed that 76 percent of Californians support granting citizenship to people who came to the country illegally as children and meet the Dream Act requirements. Latinos are the most enthusiastic -- but white voters are 75 percent in favor and even 68 percent of Republicans support such an approach, with nearly half of those interviewed strongly supportive.
This is not just a statewide mandate but a statewide interest. Over one-fourth of the young people likely to meet national Dream Act requirements are Californians -- and they include valedictorians, heads of student government, and others whose skills are needed by a state working to regain its economic footing.
Support from California Republicans is therefore low-cost and high-yield and reflective of their constituents. For example, David Dreier (R) of San Dimas (and the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley) is slated to continue as head of California's Republican Caucus -- and his district is thirty percent Latino and nineteen percent Asian Pacific. Yet his legislative focus has been entirely on border security and tougher enforcement -- and he has historically opposed Dream Act-style legislation.
This is a chance for California Republicans to represent their state and not just their party. It's also an opportunity for them to call the Democrats' bluff. Buried in the same LA Times/USC pool is another startling fact: about 68 percent of Latinos support a guest worker program, just about the same margin as white voters. Such a guest worker program has often been considered part of comprehensive immigration reform -- but resisted by Democrats in Congress. Passing the Dream Act now could open a broader and more balanced discussion of how best to move the needle on immigration reform.
Reflecting the people's will is what our representatives are supposed to do. They will have a chance to do just that soon. The dreams of more than half a million young Californians -- and the long-term future of the Republican Party -- may hang in the balance.
Follow Manuel Pastor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Prof_MPastor