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Republicans and Immigration

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This past week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed the need for conservatives to embrace a "welcoming" attitude towards immigrants. Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno, considered to be "one of the most prominent Hispanic Republicans," called on the GOP to rethink its hard-line positions on immigration. These recent comments add to the laundry list of Republican leaders and strategists who have indicated that the party must clean up its views and rhetoric if it hopes to endure. That's because Latinos and immigrants make up a growing voting bloc that has largely abandoned the Republican Party and "flipped red states to blue." The reason for their defection: Right-wing anti-immigrant demagoguery tarnished the Republican brand during the 2007 immigration debate.

The GOP is viewed as having created a climate of undeterred public immigrant-bashing that brought nativism into the mainstream. As a result, anti-Latino hate crimes increased, racial profiling soared, and in Nov. 2008, Latino and immigrant voters turned out in favor of Democrats in hopes of seeing major improvements in their communities. Census estimates indicate that Latinos will make up one quarter of the U.S. population by 2042. Much of the political success of the current Congress and administration hinges on its ability to deliver comprehensive immigration reform.

Lessons Learned: Several members of the GOP leadership came out of last year's elections saying the GOP seriously needs to "change its tune" on immigration. Last weekend, Rice told a Sacramento, CA audience, "We've got to keep welcoming these people [immigrants]." A few months ago, she indicated that not passing comprehensive immigration reform that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants in 2007 was her "deepest regret." Rice's comments are backed by her former colleagues Karl Rove and Colin Powell, who pointed out that the "policies with which we greet them [immigrants] are, in important ways, self-fulfilling."

Former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Jim Nicholson also urged Republicans to "review" their position on immigration. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), who many speculate as having resigned from his post as RNC Chairman due to his party's immigration stance, warned that the GOP will be "relegated to minority status" if it continues its anti-Latino rhetoric.

Looking Towards 2012: Some Republican leaders who are eying the 2012 elections are taking his advice. Rumored presidential hopeful former Florida governor Jeb Bush recently told Esquire magazine that Republicans need to establish a "new tone" on immigration that doesn't pit Latinos and immigrants against the GOP. Along those lines, Bush co-chaired a report released last week by the Council on Foreign Relations that recommends implementing comprehensive immigration reform consistent with American values and includes an "earned" path to legalization.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another rumored presidential hopeful who once bitterly slammed bilingual education, appeared on Univision's "Al Punto" with Jorge Ramos and has started a Spanish website and twitter feed. Another likely 2012 GOP contender, Mitt Romney -- who took a strong anti-immigrant stance in the Republican primaries -- is still advising his party to stick to its immigration principles. However, he has conceded that those principles need to be communicated in a "more effective way" because Republicans actually "celebrate immigrants." In April, he said "one way to attract more minorities to the GOP is to pass immigration reform before the next election." Though mostly mum on the subject, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) once cited the "Hispanic vote" as one of the main reasons she and John McCain were defeated in last year's presidential election.

Old Habits Die Hard: Republicans are still finding their "way out of the wilderness" when it comes to immigration. Despite adopting a friendlier approach, Gingrich is proposing a program that would involve sending all 12 million undocumented workers back to their home countries in exchange for a temporary guest-worker visa. GOP strategists were appalled at the attacks from Gingrich and others against Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) led the assault throughout this week's nomination hearings and this week, MSNBC right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan essentially told the GOP to forget Latino voters and attack Sotomayor's discrimination against white males.

Last week, Republican lawmakers were also busy playing a huge role in passing a series of enforcement-only immigration amendments proposed by Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC), David Vitter (R-LA), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that had anti-immigrant groups celebrating. Meanwhile, the July 4th tea parties charted a course for the Republican Party that further cemented anti-immigrant sentiments within the GOP's base: White supremacists eagerly recruited new members and right-wing celebrity "Joe the Plumber" punctuated the event, saying immigrants should get the "hell out of our damn country."

-- By Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ian Millhiser and Nate Carlile

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