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Republican fear factor drives immigration reform

A glimpse of political oblivion has suddenly inspired at least some Republicans to push for comprehensive immigration reform. But this does not guarantee that, six months from now, an immigration bill will be sent to the president or that, even if it is, Republicans will be saved from approaching demographic doom. 

Latinos gave President Obama 71% of their votes in the 2012 election and helped add the electoral votes of Colorado, Florida and Nevada to the president’s winning total. Republicans are terrified that if the current trend continues – Latinos rising as a share of the electorate and leaning strongly toward Democrats – Texas and Arizona will also be lost to them in the near future. And if those states are lost, so is the White House.

No one understands this better than Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was a strong supporter of revamping the immigration system until 2008 when he had to run in the opposite direction in order to win the Republican presidential nomination. On election day that year, McCain received just 31% of the Latino vote, a big drop from the 44% won by Republican George W. Bush four years earlier.

On Monday, appearing with a bipartisan group of eight senators who have reached a broad consensus on a new immigration plan, McCain did not try to hide the GOP fear factor that is driving the process. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” McCain said. “And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens.”

Just which “we” McCain was referencing is not entirely clear. Certainly, it does not encompass his entire party and definitely not the hard-right commentators on talk radio and Fox News. It is widely acknowledged that Rush Limbaugh’s opposition was a key element in the demise of immigration reform in 2007. Limbaugh and his confederates are no less unhappy about this new plan. And why should they be? There is not much new about it. It is, in reality, very close to the immigration reform formula that Obama has been talking about for four years.

Not only do immigration reform opponents strongly believe it is wrong to give a path to legal status for the 11 million illegals who currently reside within U.S. borders, they are far from convinced that passing an immigration bill will do anything positive for the Republican Party.

While interviewing Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday, Limbaugh asserted that turning illegals into citizens would only create millions of new voters for the Democrats. Obama’s capture of such a big share of Latino votes is actually an argument against GOP support of an immigration bill, Limbaugh insisted.

“If 70% of the Hispanic vote went Republican, do you think the Democrats would be for any part of this legislation?” Limbaugh asked.

Earlier this week, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow presented polling data that arguably reinforces Limbaugh’s point of view. The polls Maddow highlighted show that Latino voters are significantly more liberal than the general American electorate on just about every issue that divides Republicans and Democrats, from gay marriage to the proper size of government. Maddow is smiling and gleeful, Limbaugh is angry and red faced, but for once, they agree on something: Even if Republicans support an immigration reform bill, Latinos are not going to become instant conservatives.

Yet, it is also true that, without a more generous stance on immigration, Republicans will continue to lose Latino votes. And the fact is Republicans do not need to win 70%, or even 51%, of Latinos. If they could just get back to Bush’s 44% share, it could make a big difference. In 2012, it might have flipped the results in Colorado, Florida and Nevada, plus New Mexico and maybe even Virginia.

Like McCain, Mitt Romney had to disavow his previously progressive stance on immigration and appeal to the rigid right in the GOP primaries. He famously became the candidate of “self-deportation.” Perhaps, if he had not done that, he’d be in the White House today instead of sulking by the beach in La Jolla.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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