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Republicans and Latino Immigrants: What Happened?

Fmr. President Bush and Pres. of Mexico Felipe Calderón at the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins in 2007

In different era long, long ago, a Republican president newly arrived in office signaled a strong commitment to work with Mexico and address immigration in a way satisfactory to both countries; a way that would also provide a legal path to most of the unauthorized immigrants living in the country. 

That president was George W. Bush. 

Political analysts at the time argued that Bush’s position reflected the understanding that Latinos were fast becoming a major electoral constituency, and that by implementing comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) Republicans would be able to break the near monopoly of Democrats over the Hispanic vote. 

Although Republican leaders like Bush have always been attracted to the idea that immigrants could be part of their future political electorate, there has also always been the more pressing political calculus of the present.

When Bush tried to push the issue again in 2004, Karl Rove allegedly told the president that for any one Hispanic vote Republicans would get by passing CIR they would lose two from working class whites. Looking back now, it’s clear that Republicans concluded that greater immigration in parts of the U.S does not correlate with electoral wins but losses. 

As James G. Gimpel has widely documented, the rise of Mexican and other Latino populations is a powerful force behind the decline in the share of the Republican vote. Any percentage increase among this population is generally correlated with a decrease in support for Republicans for three main reasons: 1) the demographic changes produced by immigrant influx pushes the outmigration of natives, many of whom are Republican voters; 2) immigrants’ party identification and voting preferences are far more Democratic than among the native population; and 3) over time, as the immigrant population gains political power, the native population alters their political calculation and realizes that fighting within Democratic ranks “makes better sense than converting to the hopelessly overmatched Republicans.” 

The only hope for Republicans to invert this situation, Gimpel concluded, is with the upward mobility and prosperity of Latino immigrants, “something that will occur with great difficulty given current levels of low-skill, wage-corrosive immigration.” 

It’s unsurprising then, that as much as they want to cultivate Latino voters in theory, political elites within the Republican Party have gradually abandoned the immigrant cause. Not only have they renounced it, they have embraced likely political suicide by supporting openly racist and xenophobic causes against Latino immigrants. 

It may well be that some Republican leaders are trying to buy time by alienating and ostracizing this population. But if this is the strategy it’s a bad one, as its consequences conflict with its goals. As recent increases in the Latino vote demonstrate, the more immigrants and Latinos feel attacked the more they tend to engage in the political process. This lesson was learned almost two decades ago when Republicans pushed proposition 187 in California, all but losing political relevance in that state. 

But other politicians might not have learned that lesson yet. Or, as in many other issues facing the country today, it could be the case that the radicals have taken the reins to the detriment of all concerned, including rational Republicans, like President Bush once was in the immigration arena.