11/30/2012 09:43 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The Immigrant Vote and the Republican Party: Language Is Not the Issue

The Obama Administration has "removed" over 1.4 million non-citizens in four years, compared to 2.3 million over the last 20 years of Republican administrations. Removals divide and impoverish families, traumatize children, and lead to the legal termination of parent-child relationships. The administration has also presided over four years of immense economic hardship for immigrant communities. Yet the president won 71 percent of the Latino vote and 73 percent of the (historically conservative) Asian vote.

Republican leaders think they know why: They failed to articulate the party's values to immigrants and minorities. To House Speaker John Boehner, the party needs to do "a more effective job in communicating" its belief in the "American dream" and "individual freedom." Senator Marco Rubio likewise argued that the party must "work harder than ever to communicate" its beliefs. Senator John Cornyn, who led the Republicans' failed campaign to gain a Senate majority, asked: "How can we convey... that Republicans actually do care about people of all races, ethnicities, and classes in America?" Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lamented the party's lack of a "strong message" for middle- and lower-income Latinos. Poor messaging was also a recurrent theme of the November meeting of Republican Governors Association.

The Republican Party does, in fact, "message" poorly to immigrant and minority communities. The party and many Democrats as well use the language of illegality and criminality to describe an unauthorized population that includes 2.1 million persons who would meet the initial criteria for legal status under the DREAM Act; the parents of 4.5 million U.S. citizen children; 1.2 million persons who have resided in the United States for 20 years or more; an unknown number, but certainly millions whose family-based visa petitions have been approved; agricultural laborers and others who work in jobs in which U.S. workers are in short supply; and refugee-like populations that have lived in the United States for years. Immigrants mostly do not view their parents, spouses, children, co-workers, co-religionists or neighbors as "illegals" or "criminal aliens." Nor does the oft-repeated distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigrants resonate with a population that includes nine million persons living in mixed-status families, narrowly defined as those with an unauthorized parent and a U.S. citizen child.

Mostly, however, the Republicans resoundingly lost the immigrant vote because they have a problem of content, not language. Immigrant communities see a disconnect between the party's professed values -- family, hard work, self-reliance, faith in God, and rule-of-law -- and how its standard-bearers propose to treat people who embody these values. Immigrants have been dumbstruck by Republican criticism of the Obama Administration's alleged failure to enforce the law during an era of record enforcement, its derision of legalization proposals for even those with the strongest equitable and humanitarian claims to remain, and Governor Romney's promise to kill a program that ensures that young people raised in the United States will not be deported.

Immigrants also overwhelmingly oppose the "enforcement through attrition" state legislation and self-deportation strategies backed by Governor Romney, crafted by his leading adviser on immigration, and endorsed in the party platform. This type of legislation denies many immigrants (not solely the unauthorized) even a glimmer of hope that they can attain the American dream. In Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court held three provisions of the Arizona law and, by extension copycat laws, pre-empted by federal law. Many provisions of other state laws have subsequently been invalidated by federal courts of appeal. That said, it is instructive to remember that the states (all red) with omnibus immigration enforcement laws would:

  • Allow police to stop, detain or arrest based on "reasonable suspicion" that persons lack immigration status, creating the risk of racial profiling;
  • Allow for the warrant-less arrest of persons that police have probable cause to believe have committed removable offenses, which would be even more difficult to determine;
  • Make it a state crime to transport, harbor, conceal, encourage or induce an unauthorized immigrant to reside in the state: South Carolina would make it a crime for an unauthorized person to harbor himself;
  • Criminalize work if not authorized, although this is not a federal crime;
  • Criminalize simply being out of status, which is not a federal crime either;
  • Criminalize the failure to carry a federal alien registration document;
  • Prohibit entering rental agreements with unauthorized immigrants;
  • Prohibit the state from entering business transactions (later amended in Alabama to apply to "public records") with unauthorized immigrants, including for public utilities;
  • Prohibit enforcement of contracts with unauthorized immigrants;
  • Bar courts from considering evidence of lawful immigration status from defendants who are alleged (by immigration officials) to be unlawfully in the United States.
  • Lay the groundwork for challenges to two pillars of constitutional law, birthright citizenship and primary and secondary public education for all children.

As the presidential campaign reached its 11th hour, Governor Romney attempted to qualify his support for self-deportation strategies. Yet there was far too much at stake for immigrant communities, who follow these issues quite closely, to trust the governor's heart and vague promises to fix the immigration system. During the long campaign, the Republican Party articulated a frightening, exclusive, starkly different vision of the United States than the one championed by President George W. Bush just a few years earlier. "America has never been united by blood or birth or soil," Bush said in his first inaugural address, but it is "bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds" and "lift us above our interests." These ideals are that "everyone belongs," "everyone deserves a chance," and "no insignificant person was ever born." To win a substantial share of the immigrant and minority vote, better messaging will not suffice. The Republican Party will need to embrace Bush's vision in word, but mostly in deed.