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The GOP's Dilemma on Immigration

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Poor Newt Gingrich. During the recent GOP presidential debate in Washington, DC, he wanted to sound like the reasonable adult in the room when it comes to the issue of immigration. However, in a party dominated by ugly, nativist rhetoric against unauthorized immigrants, there is no room for a rational, civil discussion of the issue. Newt Gingrich was the latest target of a Republican pile-on for his "soft" views on immigration. When asked by debate moderator, Wolf Blitzer, what he would do about the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in America, Gingrich refused to jump on the Republican "deport 'em all" bandwagon: "I don't see how the, the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century... And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so they are not separated by their families.'" Not surprisingly, the other Republican candidates were quick to pounce. Both Romney and Bachman accused Gingrich of supporting amnesty instead of securing the borders and creating a magnet for "illegal" immigrants.

You'd think Gingrich would have learned from the pounding Gov. Rick Perry suffered in the debate in late September when he defended his support of a Texas law that allows children of unauthorized immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. Perry even suggested that Republicans who opposed the law were "heartless." Since being savaged by other Republican contenders, Perry has been careful not to talk about the Texas law and instead to emphasize his support for "get tough" policies, including increased boots on the ground and more predator drones to patrol an already heavily militarized border. This past debate it was Gingrich's turn to show he had a heart, arguing that a policy of deportation that tears apart families went against the principles of the "party of family values."

The dilemma for the GOP is obvious. During October's debate in Las Vegas, after listening to a similarly heated exchange between the candidates over immigration, a Latino in the audience wondered aloud what Republicans had to offer the Latino community. Not surprisingly, the GOP is likely to pay a price for its extreme views on immigration in the 2012 elections. According to recent polls by Latino Decisions, Latino support for Republican candidates is at historic lows and Obama appears poised to secure about the same percentage of the Latino vote in 2012 as in 2008. While Obama and the Democrats can take some comfort in the polling data, Latinos are not enthusiastic in their support of the President. Fifty-three percent of Latino registered voters are "less excited about President Obama and his accomplishments" after his first three years in office. The lukewarm support of Obama is related to his failure to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform and immigration enforcement policies that have produced historic levels of deportations and instilled fear in immigrant communities. In other words, instead of embracing Obama as they did in 2008, Latinos are reacting to a Republican Party that champions even more draconian Alabama-style laws that make life unbearable for unauthorized immigrants and their families.

The lesson from the most recent debate is that in today's GOP, more moderate views on immigration that were so instrumental to President George W. Bush's appeal to Latino voters have no place. Sensible ideas about immigration reform will be drowned out by the GOP's nativist rhetoric that equates unauthorized status with criminality and a path to citizenship with amnesty for lawbreakers and free riders. It's time for both parties to move beyond the polarizing discourse and address the more fundamental questions that lie beneath the immigration debate: what kind of a country do we want to be and how do we want to relate to our neighbors and the rest of the world? Only when we begin to respond to these questions with a more inclusive sense of "we," can we dream of a more just and humane immigration policy that reflects the increasing diversity of America and its deeper engagement with the world.

About the author: Philip J. Williams is the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida and co-author of Living "Illegal": The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration.