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Nancy Smith

Is Immigration Reform a Voter-Registration Drive for Democrats?

March 31, 2013 - 6:00pm

Republicans wrestle with immigration for good reason. They are between a rock and a hard place.

Since a ringing defeat in the November 2012 general election, Republicans have made a priority of luring Hispanic voters. Leaders claim they feel confident. They argue that once the party puts immigration reform behind them, the ethnic group will be open to the GOPs conservative message.

But experts on Hispanic demographics caution that merely capitulating on immigration reform -- even with Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio shining a light on the wound and standing by with a Band-Aid -- isn't going to stop GOP bleeding. The party can't jump on the reform bill bandwagon, sit back and wait for minorities to come shelter under the Republican tent.

The fact is, information from the latest U.S. Census tells us that immigrants generally, and Hispanic immigrants specifically -- even first-generation Hispanic-Americans -- are going to lean to the left naturally, no matter what the Republicans do.

The underlying demographics make this a population thats a tough sell for the Republican message, says Steven A. Camarota, research director at theCenter for Immigration Studies, who crunched demographic numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Camarota told the Washington Examiner, for example, that nationwide, onein five households headed by U.S.-born Hispanics is in poverty, compared with 10 percent of non-Hispanics. Hispanicsare only half as likely to be self-employed, and 50 percent of their households with children are single-mother homes, compared with 29 percent across the rest of the population.

Gary M. Segura, a political scientist at Stanford University and a principal in the polling firm Latino Decisions, believes Republicans putting away the immigration issue will definitely help them, but the GOP still will have a steep hill to climb to win hearts and minds and votes.

"It turns out that Latinos (Hispanics) are systematically to the left of whites on an entire array of economic-policy matters," Segura said.

He said that while its true Hispanics are more conservative on abortion -- about 38 percent identify themselves as pro-choice, versus about 48 percent of all Americans -- thats not an overwhelming difference. On gay marriage, Hispanics are becoming increasingly supportive.

And, even though they may be more religiously observant, they are overwhelmingly opposed to mixing religion and politics. That means social conservatism may not translate to the ballot box. Indeed, said Segura, family values rarely rate highly when Hispanics are asked what voting issues are important to them.

Chair of the Democratic National Committee Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida tweeted last week that Texas doesn't scare her, even though Lone Star State voters recently elected tea party favorite Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate. Dont count on results like that from the traditionally conservative state for much longer, Wasserman Schultz predicts.

In a confident tweet Wednesday to Battleground Texas, a fledgling Democratic organization, she said this: @BGTX Congrats on #GameOnFortWorth! Only a matter of time and hard work until #TX is #blue! #countdowntoblue #teameffort.

The tweet echoed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitanos chirpy assertion a few days earlier that her home state of Arizona, a traditional, conservative stronghold, will move to the left in the coming years, mostly because of an influx of immigrants.

Online commenters on Wasserman Schultzs tweet pointed to the same immigration effect taking hold in Texas, just as it did in the Golden State. Posted one, California used to be a strong red state -- remember Gov. Ronald Reagan? Then millions of Mexicans arrived and the liberals took over the schools.

Marco Rubio, perhaps the most critical member of the U.S. Senate's "Gang of Eight," the bipartisan group spearheading the reform package,no doubt is aware of all these things. He is also aware of the weight on his shoulders. Here was a statement he released Easter Sunday:

Im encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers. However, reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.

We have made substantial progress, and I believe we will be able to agree on a legislative proposal that modernizes our legal immigration system, improves border security and enforcement, and allows those here illegally to earn the chance to one day apply for permanent residency contingent upon certain triggers being met. However, that legislation will only be a starting point.

We will need a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments. Eight senators from seven states have worked on this bill to serve as a starting point for discussion about fixing our broken immigration system. But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American peoples consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that werent part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret.

Alfonso Aguilar, a Bush administration official who is now the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, can't fault Wasserman Schultz's reasoning and paints a grim picture if the GOP doesn't do a better job connecting with America's immigrant -- particularly, Hispanic -- population. And immigration reform is the place to start.

You either engage (Hispanics), or you become an irrelevant party and movement, he said. We already cannot win California and New York. If we continue like this, its [next] going to be Florida, Texas, Arizona. Thats it -- Republicans will never win another national election.

In the upcoming immigration reform vote, the Republicans not only have to lead the way, they have to be seen to lead the way.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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