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Michael Sargeant Headshot

Immigration Reform and the GOP's Crisis of Sincerity

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Republicans are in a bind.

On one hand, some Republican elected officials have finally realized the growing Latino population has reached an electoral "critical mass," and the GOP can no longer win elections by obstructing sensible, comprehensive immigration reform that would finally secure our borders and treat human beings like human beings.

As Congress prepares to debate immigration reform, in part because of this Republican electoral epiphany, the unspoken questions are which party potentially 11 million new Americans will support when they eventually step into the voting booth, and whether showing these 11 million new Americans some compassion will earn Republicans a new beginning with the 12 million Latinos who already vote.

One thing's for sure, though: the national GOP's existing, self-described strategy of "shamelessly" promoting Latino Republican candidates while ignoring the issues Latino voters care about has been an abject failure so far. Despite allegedly committing "at least $3 million" specifically to elect Latino Republican state legislators last fall, the number of Latino Republicans serving in statehouses actually declined in the 2012 Election, according to statistics from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Latino Democrats, by contrast, increased their numbers by nearly 10 percent.

So if Republican messengers are not forthcoming, the message itself must change. But for all the Republican rhetoric of reaching out to the Hispanic community, they will have a difficult time convincing anyone to forget what the GOP has said and done over the past decade. Not while too many Republican officials still hold onto the anti-immigrant rhetoric and public policies that catapulted them into public office in the first place and still earn them support among increasingly White, conservative primary voters.

It didn't have to be this way. President Bush, for all his faults, was a consistent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, and his reward for that stance (at least partially) was 44 percent of the votes of Latino communities in 2004 -- the highest Republican share in the modern era.

But it was the Democratic Party, not the Republicans, who embraced the President's example.

Democrats provided three times as many votes as Republicans for President Bush's immigration reform effort, flawed though it may have been. Democrats at the state level have since crafted legislation mimicking the DREAM Act, to allow educational opportunities to children who were brought to America illegally and through no fault of their own.

Other Democratic bills would allow undocumented immigrants to access drivers' licenses, an important law-enforcement priority that benefits all residents by reducing the number of uninsured drivers. And nationwide, the Democratic Party continues to be the party of comprehensive immigration reform.

The Republican Party, however, has chosen a different path. Cowed by anti-immigrant forces within the GOP base, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, disavowed his sponsorship of a previous comprehensive immigration plan. McCain's decision was a true betrayal, and it set the tone for a Republican Party whose rhetoric on immigration would grow even more extreme and less restrained.

One Republican state legislator suggested shooting undocumented immigrants from helicopters, like his state already did with "immigrating feral hogs." Another described growing Latino communities as "like importing leper colonies." Republican-backed legislation targeting immigrants became increasingly punitive and vindictive, starting with Arizona's (since replicated in other states) "show me your papers" law and continuing with bills aimed at making it impossible for undocumented immigrants to access emergency care.

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee had a one-word immigration plan that embodied the view that some Americans simply aren't welcome, something all vulnerable minority groups can relate to: "Self-Deportation."

Republicans today are in a position where they are trying desperately to hold back the tide -- believing the Beltway narrative that all Republicans need to do is support immigration reform kicking and screaming, delivering few votes while declaring publicly (as some have) that "elections" are the only reason Republicans are allowing reform to happen, and suddenly Hispanic and other immigrant communities will forget the rhetoric and actions over the last ten years and reward the GOP with their total allegiance.

But that narrative ignores a stark reality in our politics today: America has one major political party which embraces Latino and other minority communities, and one that tells them to self-deport. One party is working to earn their vote, while the other has been working furiously to ensure they can't vote at all.

And Latino voters care about much more than just immigration. One party stands with Latinos in supporting a safe environment with clean air and clean water; one party--like them--supports Obamacare; one party stands with a majority of Latinos in support of marriage equality, and one party--like them--supports smart gun safety laws.

Democrats have not just embraced immigrants, but the numerous issues that Latino and other immigrant communities care deeply about.

Republicans are treating immigration reform like a slot machine they're finally willing to try out, just this once, in hopes of cashing out in future elections.

The GOP is hoping these new voters will just conveniently forget that for years, Republicans used them as a lightening rod to scare other Americans. They're hoping their own recent history will just disappear after a single vote.

The GOP's strategy is as transparent as it is flawed, and it is no party's ticket to power in a changing America.