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How a hardline position on immigration hurt the Republicans in 2008.

By 2.24.09

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The election of 2008 proved catastrophic for opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans lost seven Senate seats -- eight if the courts sustain Al Franken's lead in Minnesota. On June 28, 2007, each of the eight previous office-holders (Republicans, all) voted to block the Bush administration's immigration bill. Replacing these eight immigration hardliners are five new senators clearly favorable to a comprehensive approach -- six, counting Franken -- and two whose positions are unclear. All, of course, are Democrats.

In the House, comprehensive immigration reformers picked up at least 14 votes, and "enforcement-only" advocates lost 14. Ten incumbent members of the restrictionist House Immigration Reform Caucus were defeated. The "enforcement first/enforcement only" cause lost such major spokesmen as Tom Feeney, Virgil Goode, Thelma Drake, Marilyn Musgrave, Ric Keller, Bill Sali, and Nancy Boyda.

In the face of such obvious losses, what's an immigration hawk to do? Writing for the Center for Immigration Reform, James Gimpel, professor of Politics at the University of Maryland, provides an answer: disclaim all responsibility. In Latino Voting in the 2008 Election, he uses the gigantic Edison-Mitofsky exit polls of 2004 and 2008 to make two principle points: first, that Latino voting patterns do not differ noticeably from national trends; and second, that the immigration issue played a negligible role in the election. He writes: "Latino voters just aren't that different from other voters in the national electorate. Their support for Republicans rises or falls when support for GOP candidates rises among the broader electorate."

There is a major problem with Professor Gimpel's assertion: the evidence he adduces in its defense disproves it. John McCain underperformed George W. Bush by 5 percent. The Edison-Mitofsky presidential data show McCain underperforming Bush among Latinos by 13 percent. The same data set shows the Republican share of the Latino congressional vote falling even more precipitously: from 44% in 2004 to 29% in 2008 -- a 15% drop.

When a major demographic group registers a shift of 30 votes-per-hundred cast over a single presidential cycle, it certainly renders itself "different from other voters." Such a result represents not a national trend, but a massacre.

Is the precipitous decline in the GOP's Hispanic vote share related to Republican opposition to comprehensive immigration reform? Professor Gimpel thinks not. But the data that explains Hispanic resistance to "enforcement only" is voluminous. Roughly 80% of America's 12 million resident illegals are Latino. The larger community of Hispanic U.S. citizens, 30 million strong, is linked to the undocumented through ties of family, church, culture, and common broadcast media. The Pew Hispanic Center records that 41% of America's Hispanic citizens fear a deportation action against a friend or family member. The undocumented live in 6.6 million families that include 4.9 million children, and 3.5 million American citizens.

In their places of worship, 44% of Latino churchgoers hear their clergy speak out against enforcement-only laws. In 2007, one-in-four Hispanics participated in protests or demonstrations in support of immigrants' rights.

In a recent study, I analyzed the immigration positions of major party candidates in the 90 most competitive House districts. In 26 instances, a Democrat won a seat previously held by a Republican. In six of these districts, the immigration positions of the candidates were indistinguishable. In 19 of the remaining 20, the less restrictive candidate won -- all Democrats.

In the 90 most competitive contests, the electoral success of "enforcement only" candidates varied in inverse proportion to the percentage of resident Latinos. The median Hispanic population of Congressional districts won by "enforcement only" candidates was 2.3%. The median Hispanic population of Congressional districts won by comprehensive reform candidates was 12.8%. Latinos today are 15.1% of our nation's population.

The implications are clear: To the extent that Republicans insist on an "enforcement only" immigration posture, they commit themselves to navigate a population minefield -- one whose volatility will inevitably increase with the natural migrations of Latino citizens.

Given these grim outcomes, and grimmer prospects, it is understandable that those who wish to deport 12 million illegals must make extraordinary efforts to convince ordinary conservatives that their causes are joined at the hip. National security advocates must be persuaded to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to apprehend millions of persons whose lives are in no way linked to terrorism. Free marketers must be convinced to terminate seven million labor agreements with seasonal workers, low-wage workers, and high-tech specialists. Right-to-lifers must be taught the necessity of antagonizing the nation's fastest growing pro-life demographic (Hispanics) and the nation's most organized pro-life institution (the Catholic Church). And pro-family groups must understand the rationale for breaking up 6.6 million "illegal" families whose members include 4.9 million children and 3.5 million American citizens.

If the potency of "enforcement only" as a wedge issue were overblown, its political utility oversold, its advocates might be forced to explain why they hold needed border reforms hostage to a deportation project that in no way furthers, and in every way hinders, all major conservative tenets. It is thus critical for immigration restrictionists to repackage their defeats as victories. Because in the moment that conservatives realize that their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform is unnecessary, they will understand that it is undesirable.

No longer joined at the hip, deportationists will be unwelcome in the house.

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About the Author

Richard Nadler is president of the Americas Majority Foundation, a Midwestern public policy think tank.