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My reaction to Mike Murphy’s recent appearance on the Ricochet Podcast can be summarized with one word: frustration. I think it safe to say that my reaction is one shared by many – probably most – members. That said, the cause of my frustration puts me in a minority on Ricochet. Though I do not support comprehensive immigration reform at the present moment, I think it will be necessary at some point and I was deeply disappointed at how poor a case Murphy made for immigration reform as a political necessity. There are few things I find more frustrating than listening to an argument to which I am sympathetic put poorly. Now I don’t expect everyone to be persuaded by this, but here’s what I think Murphy should have said:*
First, we need to recognize that the GOP’s problem with the Hispanic vote is a serious one. Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States and are the fastest-growing segment of the American population. There are currently around 25 million Hispanics eligible to vote in the United States, a number set to rise to 40 million by 2030. Even if Hispanic immigration (both legal and illegal) were stopped entirely today, if the Republican Party cannot get a significantly higher percent of the Hispanic vote than it has in recent elections it is headed for long-term minority party status. This is particularly true in the case of presidential politics. The GOP cannot achieve an Electoral College majority without Texas and Hispanics are on track to become the largest ethnic group in Texas in about a decade. A Republican Party that receives less than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote is in trouble. Since 1980 (the first election for which such data is available and reliable), no one has won a presidential election with less than 30% of the Hispanic vote. In 2012, Romney received only 27%.
Fortunately, Hispanic voting patterns are not set in stone. While it is unlikely that the GOP is going to win a majority of Hispanic votes anytime soon, it should be recognized that the Republican Party’s standing among Hispanic voters is currently at a twenty year low and that it was much higher fairly recently. George W. Bush did quite well among Hispanics. In 2000, he received 35% of the Hispanic vote and in 2004 he won between 41 and 44% (depending on the source).
This brings us to the question of why the GOP currently does so poorly among Hispanics. Between 2004 and the midterm elections of 2006, the Republican Party saw its share of the Hispanic vote fall by between one quarter and one third. While the GOP lost ground among pretty much every demographic group, the drop in support among Hispanics was substantially greater than among other groups. One thing that likely contributed to this collapse in support is that W’s attempt to pass a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA) was thwarted by a GOP-controlled Congress.
Perhaps more at fault than the actual failure of the CIRA was the nature of much of the right’s opposition to it. Groups such as the Minutemen received prominent news coverage and, while their motives may have been benign, they were portrayed as anti-Hispanic vigilantes and bigots. Such coverage may have been unfair, but it was not without a factual basis. In 2008, Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist expressed dismay at the number of organizations with “sinister intentions” that grew out of the Minuteman Project saying, “I very well may have been fighting for people with less character and less integrity than the ‘open border fanatics’ I have been fighting against.” On a less extreme level, it’s hard to argue that conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh help the perception of the GOP among Hispanics when they argue against immigration reform on the grounds that Hispanic immigrants are welfare-dependent, job-stealing, criminally-inclined drains on America’s public finances planning to reconquer the Southwest for La Raza (not that La Raza wouldn’t like a reconquista).
So why, you may ask, if the GOP is generally perceived to be unwelcoming to Hispanics, is immigration reform necessary to improve the GOP’s standing among Hispanics?
Well, immigration is more of a threshold question than a magic bullet. Passing immigration reform would demonstrate to Hispanic voters that the GOP is not hostile to them. There are currently large numbers of Hispanics who might be receptive to the conservative message on the value of hard work, traditional morality, and opportunity, but who reject it out of hand because they perceive the messengers to be hostile to them. We cannot persuade someone of the rightness of our position if they aren’t willing to give us a hearing in the first place.
But shouldn’t Hispanics already be receptive to our position? After all, polling tends to show that Hispanic voters care far more about the economy than they do about immigration.
It’s true that polling suggests that Hispanic voters care far more about the economy than they do about immigration reform, but that doesn’t really matter in this context. As Mickey Kaus astutely pointed out, the fact that voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District stated that the economy was a higher priority to them than immigration doesn’t mean that immigration doesn’t matter. Sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander, Hispanic voters may care more about the economy than they do about immigration, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about immigration.
What about the argument that amnesty would add millions of new Democratic voters to the electorate?
Opponents of the path to citizenship frequently make the claim that it will result in 11 million new Democratic voters, ushering in a permanent Democratic majority. While it’s true that providing a path to citizenship to those illegally in the country would lead to an increase in Democratic votes, the actual net effect is likely to be far less than the 11 million figure. First, it needs to be recognized that 11 million is the total number of illegal immigrants in the country and that not all of these are going to become citizens. I have a friend who is an immigration lawyer and staunch opponent of comprehensive immigration reform. His best estimate is that between 40 and 50 percent of current illegal immigrants will not end up becoming citizens — some because of ineligibility or return to their home country, most because they don’t really care about citizenship and would be content with legal status as permanent residents. Let’s assume the high end of his range opts for citizenship. 60% of 11 million is 6.6 million. That’s not the end of the analysis. Hispanics have a voter turnout of 48%, so of the 6.6 million eligible to vote only 3.17 million are likely to actually vote. Not all of these will vote Democrat. If we assume that the GOP is able to increase its share of the Hispanic vote from the currently abysmal 27% to a 2000 level 35% we end up with 2 million new Democratic votes and 1.1 million new Republicans for a net increase of only 900,000 Democratic votes. If the GOP can revive its share of the Hispanic votes to 2004 levels, the net increase in Democratic votes shrinks to 380,000.
And that doesn’t take into account the effect of comprehensive immigration reform on the larger established Hispanic vote. The first amnestied voters won’t go to the polls for a decade. By then, the established (non-amnestied) Hispanic electorate will be around 35 million, of which around half, or 17.5 million will actually vote. Under current voting patterns, the GOP will receive about 4.72 million of those votes. If the GOP share of the Hispanic votes rises to 2000 levels, it will receive 6.13 million votes and if it rises to 2004 levels it will receive 7.7 million votes for a net increase of between 1.41 million and 3.02 million votes. Thus a path to citizenship, taken on its own, will likely lead to a net increase of between 380,000 and 900,000 Democratic votes, but the overall effect of comprehensive immigration reform will likely be a net Republican gain of between 500,000 and 2.6 million votes.
What about the risk that amnesty will just induce another wave of illegal immigration?
I agree that’s a real problem. That’s why I oppose comprehensive immigration reform at the moment. At least until we control the Senate, preferably until we retake the White House in 2016.
* In fairness, Murphy did make some of these points, or points of a similar nature.Published in