The Republican Choice on Immigration And Latino Outreach

This week offered new evidence of the Republican split over the immigration issue and provided new recruits for each side.

As we’ve discussed before, Republicans are facing a major fork in the road over immigration issues. 

In one direction is the large contingent of GOPers who, no matter the short-term political damage (the failure of the GOP’s immigration wedge strategy in recent elections) or the longer-term stupidity of anti-immigration pandering (Latino demographic and voting trends aren’t exactly a secret), remains convinced that stridently anti-immigrant rhetoric and unyielding deportation-only policies are the proper course.  In the other direction is a smaller group of elected officials and conservative activists who understand both the political imperatives and practical policy necessities of changing the Party’s tone on immigration.

This week offered new evidence of the Republican split over the issue and provided new recruits for each side.

Offering support for the worn anti-immigration direction for the Party was Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). In front a crowd of 350 people in Yuma, AZ, Senator Kyl promised that, upon comprehensive immigration reform legislation reaching the U.S. Senate floor, “Republicans will use the opportunity to filibuster.”  Translation: even though he represents a state in desperate need of reforming the broken immigration system, AND, no matter that the legislation is modeled largely after his own 2007 bill, the second-ranking R in the Senate is proclaiming that the political benefits of stopping a bipartisan initiative supported by the President is more important than solving one of his state’s key problems.  Kyl’s remarks come in the midst of a high-profile primary fight in Arizona between Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and challenger J.D. Hayworth, in which immigration is a hot topic and key dividing line between the candidates.

In news highlighting the other direction for the GOP on immigration, former Governor Jim Edgar (R-IL), one of the state’s leading Republican heavyweights, voiced support for comprehensive immigration reform.  At a news conference announcing a new coalition of over 200 Chicago-area businesses who are backing comprehensive immigration reform, Gov. Edgar said, "I can't think of any better way to move this economy than to finally deal with comprehensive immigration reform," and noted the damage that the GOP’s immigration stance is doing politically to the Party’s future, saying, “If the immigrant community views us as a party that is hostile to them ... we just can't afford that.”

As America’s Voice noted in our recent The Power of the Latino Vote report, the Latino electorate is set to play a key role in dozens of swing races throughout the country in 2010 and has been a large and growing presence in an increasing number of congressional districts throughout the country.  Currently, nearly 1/5 congressional districts, 79 in total, are comprised of at least 25% Latino populations.  And, as seen in recent polling conducted by Bendixen & Amandi, this fastest-growing demographic group of voters’ political preferences have clearly been shaped by the past immigration debates, with only 24% of respondents reporting trust in congressional GOP to “do the right thing” on immigration issues (by comparison, 64% trusted congressional Democrats).  This is because Latinos view the immigration debate through a personal lens – 78% of Latino voters in the Bendixen & Amandi poll said that immigration was “personally important” to them or their family and 62% reported personally knowing an undocumented person. 

Republicans have a choice – between being a Party of the future and a Party of the past; between being a Party truly national in scope and a Party that is only regionally competitive; and, as this week’s developments highlighted, between being a Party of Jon Kyl and a Party of Jim Edgar, when it comes to immigration and Latino outreach.

Lynn Tramonte is the Deputy Director of America's Voice.