Beginning in 2000, the Republican National Committee embarked on an outreach program among Hispanic voters. It did surveys and trained speakers to go out into communities to make contact with voters. Many of them spoke Spanish. The program was tailored to Hispanic/Latino groups from various ethnic origins. It paid off. The party's share of this vote went from 21 percent in 1996 to 44 percent in 2004. (It helped that then-President George W. Bush speaks Spanish.)
By 2008, Sen. John McCain still got 33 percent of the Latino vote to Obama's 67 percent. This time, however, the president's vote climbed to 71 percent and Romney's dropped to 29 percent.
Why the steady slippage? Partly inattention, partly rhetoric, and partly negatively perceived policy positions.
The easiest to solve is the first. The RNC should replicate its careful work of 1999 and 2000, surveying attitudes among Hispanic populations, training speakers and community liaison workers to reach out to these groups. It might even consider setting up community offices in some cities.
The rhetoric and policy positions will be much more difficult to turn around. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida began to draft legislation to allow college-age undocumented aliens a chance to enroll or enter the armed services if they had come to the U.S. as infants. When the Obama Administration got wind of it, they trumped it with their "Dream" Act. A similar bill was put to a vote in California. Not a single Republican legislator voted for it. How's that for compassion and understanding?
Negatively perceived rhetoric and policy positions are often coupled. For example, in 1994, California's Governor Pete Wilson campaigned in support of a ballot issue to deny illegal aliens any public services. It passed. This was widely understood by people of Mexican descent as a slap at all of them -- legal or illegal. As a result, California's Republican Party was from then on seen as unfriendly to people of Latino/Hispanic descent. It remains so to this day.
Many conservatives raised demands for the federal government to complete the authorized border "fence" (in its various forms) to put a stop to illegal immigrant inflow. Some, particularly office holders, said, in effect, "Do this first, then let's discuss what to do about the approximately 11 million already here." Many Hispanics were skeptical, worried that once the fence was completed, the rest of the discussion would not take place. Such is the state of trust.
Illegal immigration has declined in recent years, partly a result of the U.S. recession, partly because of better border security, and partly thanks to improved economic conditions in Mexico which have created more jobs.
Looking to a day when the border is fully secure, the big question remains: What to do about the 11 million undocumented aliens here already? Many have been here for several years at least. Some critics contend that since "they broke the law coming here, they should go to the back of the line for legal immigration." Sounds tidy, but in reality if all 11 million did that and all 336,000 annual green card quotas were assigned to them (most unlikely), it would take 30 years for all of them to be processed!
Some Republican lawmakers are beginning to talk openly about comprehensive reform. Mr. Obama talked about it four years ago, but did nothing. Such reform might involve issuing a work permit parallel to a green card, to those who met certain defined standards. This would neither grant nor imply "a path to citizenship." Thus the "third rail" presented by the word "Amnesty" would have its electricity cut off.
Republicans in Congress should seize the initiative and present legislation. The next step would be for some of our bright new Hispanic/Latino stars to fan out on speaking tours. Sen. Rubio, Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas, and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez come to mind to mount this effort.
All of this can be done. The question is, will Republicans summon the will to act?