Latino Backlash Could Doom GOP

Editor's Note: The anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation from many Republicans (and some Democrats) is stoking flames of resentment against Latinos among the GOP's largely white base. Should Latinos get fed up and refuse to vote Republican -- and exit polls suggest a large majority did just that on Nov. 7 -- the GOP could be doomed politically for years to come.

As I watched political history on my television and computer screens Tuesday night, I couldn't help but think about Lionel Sosa, the Latino who may have lost the most in this week's election. Sosa, a political consultant and director of Mexicans and Texans Thinking Together (MATT), a nonprofit in San Antonio, is largely credited with developing the strategies that colored almost 40 percent of the Latino electorate Republican red. I was curious about how it felt for someone who worked closely with Karl Rove, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to watch his work turn Democrat blue. (Experts I interviewed and exit polls estimate that about 70 percent of Latinos voted Democratic last Tuesday, as compared to 53 percent in 2004). So, I called Sosa at the MATT office.

"I don't think everything I worked for is lost," Sosa said, "but Latinos did send a message to the Republican party: If we don't humanize the approach to immigration, it will cost us the Latino vote." His choice of the word "humanize" was telling, for Tuesday's election is but another reminder of the GOP's urgent need to move beyond appeals to the baser instincts of its still predominantly white base. Lionel's soft-spoken strategic advice must roar in the ears of his longtime friend Karl Rove, whose efforts to broaden the largely white Republican tent appear to have imploded.

Whether Republicans' enforcement-only approach to immigration -- the infamous wall and other punitive measures -- drives Latinos as deep into the anti-Republican camp as African-Americans (whose support for GOP is consistently in single digits) depends on whether we see the 187-ization of the nation.

I came to understand the long-term effects of anti-immigrant policies after fighting such policies in California. The most famous is Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that called for the denial of health and education services to the children of undocumented immigrants. Prop. 187, which was eventually blocked in the courts, turned the Golden State into a template for the current immigration wars.

As I listen to strategists like Sosa and other experts ponder the possibility of an anti-Republican backlash among Latinos, I'm reminded of a 1993 meeting between a delegation of Latino activists and Latino elected officials and then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, the main sponsor of Prop 187. "I resent the implication that I'm a racist," Wilson told the group, pounding his desk. "I am not a racist and I give the Hispanic community more credit than to fall for this kind of race-baiting." I'd asked Wilson how he felt knowing that many of the 10-year-old Mexican and Salvadoran kids I worked with thought he hated them because of his leadership around Proposition 187.

Those kids turned 22 this year. They remembered Pete Wilson and his imitators throughout the country and paid them -- and the Republican party -- back by building the youthful army (the average Latino is 26) driving the largest mobilizations in U.S. history. Several told me that they organized around voting this year because they were too young to do so in 1994. As part of the largest Latino turnout (8.5 percent) in U.S. history last Tuesday, they delivered on their slogan, "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote."

States, cities and towns such as Hazelton, Pa., are mimicking Pete Wilson's California by adopting anti-immigrant measures. More than 80 Proposition 187-like initiatives denying immigrants everything from drivers' licenses and health care to education and housing appeared on recent state ballots. These areas are also starting to resemble California demographically and socially. The elements for the 187-ization of the nation are in place: declining white population, fast-growing Latino population and a shrinking middle class in economic distress. White backlash against Latinos pushes them to mobilize in streets and into voting against the Republicans.

What's worse for the future GOP are distressing anti-Latino trends. Principal among these is how Republicans (and some Democrats, including Latino Democrats) framed immigration as the "national security issue." The organized and consistent attacks of the Minutemen did not exist in 1994. Since 1994, Latinos have had to stand by and watch weekly reports of the deaths of scores of immigrants in the desert; the number of immigration raids has reached historic highs according to Homeland Security officials; and the wall provides a concrete and fenced daily reminder of the loathing of Latinos.

These and other factors are giving birth to the 187-ization of the nation.

Sosa's warnings to his friends in the weakened seat of global power are on point. The Republican party must rapidly reverse the dehumanization of millions in our midst. Otherwise last Tuesday's results point to nothing less than a GOP future of political catastrophe.

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