Why Republicans Will Cave on Immigration Reform

Judging from the cold shoulder conservative Republicans gave President Bush when he called for a humane, balanced immigration reform law in a recent speech in Orange County, Calif., one would think these hardliners won't budge from their demand for a crackdown on illegal immigration. But eventually, most of them will.

With stratospheric gas prices, the Iraq quagmire, creeping inflation and Bush's Great Depression-era low approval ratings, the Republicans are in trouble. Polls show that if the national elections were held today, Democrats would grab a majority in the House and make deep inroads into the Republican majority in the Senate.

The political peril is so great that the GOP can't afford to alienate its one tenuous voting trump card: the Latino vote. Bush knows this better than anyone else. He also knows that immigration reform is the key to getting those votes.

The Latino vote numbers tell the story. In 2002, the Pew Hispanic Center found that one-fifth of Latino voters were registered as Republicans. In the 2004 presidential election, Bush got more than one-third of the Latino vote. Without those votes John Kerry would have won the White House.

It isn't just the votes. It's where those votes come from that cinched the victory for Bush, and where they could come from in the 2008 presidential elections that Republicans hope will cinch victory for them again. The greatest numbers of Latino voters are in California, Florida, Texas and New York. In the next two years, the Latino vote will swell in Illinois and New Jersey. The number of Latino elected officials doubled and tripled in those states in 2004. These are the key electoral states that virtually determine who will sit in the White House for years to come.

Bush got Latino votes in 2004 by pumping millions into ads on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. The ads saturated the airwaves in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. The money was well spent. Bush won the four states, and he did it with substantial Latino support.

Republicans didn't just spend heavily on Spanish-language ads, and enlist a bevy of talking heads, and that at times included Bush with his weekly radio broadcasts in bad, broken Spanish. They adroitly tailored their political pitches to their Spanish audience in Florida, Texas, California and other Southwestern states, complete with local accents and idioms. If Republicans can hold a substantial part of those votes in 2004, and bolster those numbers with thousands more undocumented workers transformed into citizens and voters, that could potentially result in millions more Republican loyalists.

Then there are the evangelicals. Latino evangelicals, both legal and illegal immigrants, make up about one-fourth of the membership of evangelical churches in America, and their numbers are growing. They are staunchly anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion and pro-family values. They are prime political pickings for the GOP. Latino evangelicals flexed their political muscle in March when they forced several prominent national evangelical groups to back-peddle fast from their hard-nosed stance on immigration reform, and either remain neutral in the debate or issue cautious statements calling on Congress to enact a fair and balanced immigration reform law.

There is a cautionary tale for the Republicans in playing fast and loose with the immigration issue. During the hard-fought Virginia Republican gubernatorial campaign in November 2005, Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore fanned the anti-immigrant flames with a series of 11th-hour anti-illegal immigration campaign ads. It backfired. It cost him crucial votes in Northern Virginia where the number of Latino voters has leaped in the past few years.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was one of the first to sound the alarm bell. In a Wall Street Journal editorial in April, he firmly put the GOP on notice that it must not become known as the anti-immigrant party. Gillespie crunched the numbers and noted that Republicans can't win in 2008 without the key swing states of New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Nevada, which Bush won in 2004.

Bush and the Republicans fix their political eye on more than Latino population numbers and votes. They also see Latinos' dollars. In politics money doesn't talk, it screams. The disposable income of Latinos soared to nearly $1 trillion during the 1990s and continues to climb. Credit card, shipping and communications companies, trade and tourist associations, hotels, airlines and sports franchises are now feverishly marketing products to snatch a bigger share of Latinos' dollars. Republican campaign officials will do the same.

Latino campaign contributions can influence and shape political attitudes and politician's actions the same as others' dollars routinely have. Republican senators warn that it's absolutely imperative to pass an immigration reform bill, and that the bill should look pretty much like the one Bush wants. For the Republicans it's more than a matter of fairness -- it's also a matter of votes.

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