Another Perspective

Heeding Archbishop Gomez

Must the GOP shoot itself in the foot over immigration?

By and 12.15.11

Send to Kindle

If the GOP is to win back the White House in 2012, it cannot afford to alienate Catholic and Latino voters. Just as the shift of support from Catholic and Latino voters helped George W. Bush into the White House twice, it can do the same for Barack Obama.

Because of its impact on these two groups of voters, the debate over immigration will be one of the deciding factors in the 2012 election.

It was no surprise that after the rancor of the 2005 immigration debate the level of Latino support for the GOP presidential candidate dropped from 44% in 2004 to 31% in 2008. How significant is this drop in terms of numbers and in terms of the Catholic vote itself? The percentage of Latino voters is growing steadily, moving from 8% in 2004 to 9% in 2008. Over 19 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2010, but they are under-registered (60%) in comparison to African Americans (70%) and Whites (74%). The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund is projecting a 25% increase in Latino voters in 2012 compared to 2008. As one study put it, "With significant voter registration drives the Latino vote can go from influential to essential."

Somewhere from 64% to 70% of Latinos identify as Catholic, thus constituting a growing percentage of the overall Catholic vote. Among all Catholic voters, there was a big swing in 2008, from 52% - 47% for Bush in 2004 to 54% - 45% for Obama. However, among white Catholics, McCain still had the edge, 52% - 47%. It was Latino Catholics who made the difference.

A major study in 2008 estimated that Latinos make up nearly 32% of the Catholic population in the United States, but another study in 2011 puts it at 40% with more than half of them Catholics under the age of 25. According to the latest Census figures, Latinos make up 15% of the nation's total population.

The growing Latino presence among U.S. Catholics, however, does not tell the whole story about why immigration has become a major issue for Catholic voters. For several years all Catholics have been intensely lobbied by their bishops to demand "Justice for Immigrants." The bishops' conference is on the record in support of the DREAM Act, and the USCCB has made it clear they consider immigration reform a top priority in the 2012 election.

Most recently, in a letter to immigrants issued December 12 on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, thirty Catholic bishops wrote:

"Despite your contributions to the well-being of our country, instead of receiving our thanks, you are often treated as criminals because you have violated current immigration laws."

Signers included Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, the leading bishops of Mexican descent in the country. It's notable that Archbishop Gomez has become a leading voice on this issue. Since Gomez first became auxiliary bishop in Denver under Archbishop Chaput, he has earned wide respect for his pro-life, pro-marriage efforts among the kind of Catholic voters often aligned with the Republican Party.

It's inevitable that all religiously active Catholic voters will consider what bishops like Archbishop Gomez have to say on the subject of immigration. Some bishops have reported resistance in the Catholic business community to their arguments on immigration. Archbishop Gomez attempted to address their concerns in a speech given to a meeting of Catholic business leaders this past February. He recognized that many immigrants were in the country illegally, commenting, "That bothers me. I don't like it when our rule of law is flouted. And I support just and appropriate punishments." But the present forms of punishment impose "penalties that leave wives without husbands, children without parents. We are deporting fathers and leaving single mothers to raise children on little to no income." Archbishop Gomez added, "We have always been a nation of justice and law. But we have also been a nation of mercy and forgiveness."

Archbishop Gomez' arguments are somewhat different from the official statements from the USCCB. Those arguments are bogged down in the confusion of conflicting rights; the right of the immigrant to seek the necessary goods of life versus the right of the state to secure borders. Gomez, on the other hand, stresses the similarities between what America has always stood for and the character of Hispanic immigrants -- he describes them as having "strong traditions of family and faith, community and hard work," and most are Catholic and hold "deep conservative values."

Gomez eschews the rights' argument and stresses the benefits to our nation: "Today's immigrants -- like generations of immigrants before them -- are the hope for tomorrow's America. We need to find the political will to make them our fellow citizens. If we can, I know that together we will build an America that is stronger, more religious, and more moral."

We think that Archbishop Gomez is articulating a kind of third way in the immigration debate, one that politicians would be smart to consider. White Catholics who lean Republican may not embrace the DREAM Act, but many have already grown tired of the conservative tirades against "amnesty." They, like Gomez, want to find the "political will" to seek a solution that combines compassion, security, and economical viability.

Republican strategists should tread very carefully when it comes to immigration reform. The GOP already has the image of being anti-immigrant, and with the Catholic community becoming more and more Latino that could be translated into being anti-Catholic. It's a mistake, for example, to respond to the Dec. 12 letter from the bishops as did the communications director of the group Federation for American Immigration Reform, who accused the Catholic Church of seeing "immigration as a recruiting tool." This is the kind of comment that was flung around regularly in 2005 -- it's not only false but can be heard as containing a note of bigotry.

In an article published last week, we argued that the principles of Catholic social teaching can become a source in overcoming the policy deadlock to create sensible immigration reform with bipartisan support. By viewing immigration through the principle of the common good, the way to deal with the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants can begin to resemble the scenario sketched by Archbishop Gomez. Does it really serve the common good to focus on punishing those millions who have broken the law, rather than recognizing the contributions they have made and will make to our country? After all, it was the irresistible human desire for freedom, happiness, and prosperity that led the original colonists to the land we now know as America.

We agree with Archbishop Gomez when he says, "We need to find the political will to make them our fellow citizens. If we can, I know that together we will build an America that is stronger, more religious, and more moral." Such a third way need not be pure "amnesty" or ignore the dire need for border security. It can be built on two programs, one leading to work visas, the other to full citizenship. Those undocumented seeking citizenship will be required to give 100 hours of community service in a "Future of Americas Program" that will be designed to assist families, educational programs, and businesses in Latino communities.

To those in the GOP who have written off Latino support in 2012, it should be recalled that Obama was not the first choice of Latino voters in the 2008 primary. Sen. Hillary Clinton received twice the number of Latino votes, but once Obama became the nominee they swung massively to him. The Pew Research Center reported, "According to the 2008 National Survey of Latinos, conducted in June and July of this year, 75% of Latino registered voters who said they supported Clinton in the primaries switched their support to Obama."

It has not gone unnoticed that Obama has done little to keep his promise of immigration reform during his first term in office. All Democrats have to offer in 2012 is another promise for the second term. Republicans have introduced several pieces of reform legislation but have yet to move past an anti-immigrant perception. A thoughtful examination of Archbishop Gomez' third way principles could offer the Republican Party an improved relationship with Latino and Catholic voters on this issue.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Deal W. Hudson was chair of RNC Catholic Outreach and is the author of Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Threshold). He is president of Catholic Advocate in Washington, D.C.
About the Author

Matt Smith, vice-president of Catholic Advocate, was Associate Director of Public Liaison responsible for Catholic outreach under President George W. Bush.