There may be no single, simple explanation why Mitt Romney lost the election this week – but clearly the perception that the GOP is anti-Hispanic didn't help. For years, I've been warning my fellow conservatives that their position on immigration would be costly, not just politically but for the economy as well.
The election results definitively proved the former. The Hispanic vote was decisive in denying Romney a win in Colorado, Nevada, Florida and possibly Virginia. Without winning more Hispanic votes, the Republican Party may be doomed to permanent minority status.
Hispanics are the fastest growing population in the country. As a group they are younger, have slightly higher birthrates and greater longevity than other groups (80.6 years compared to 78.1 years for non-Hispanic whites), which means the demographic shifts to more Hispanic and fewer non-Hispanic white voters will only increase over time, even if all immigration were halted today.
In 2012, Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the electorate, up 1 percent over 2008, while the non-Hispanic white vote declined by 2 percent in the same period to 72 percent. But this demographic shift would not necessarily doom Republican chances of winning the White House were it not for the party's insistence on alienating Hispanic citizens by pursuing draconian measures against illegal immigrants.
Most of my fellow conservatives don't understand why Hispanic citizens are so offended at the party's position. What part of illegal don't you understand, they ask. We aren't against legal immigration, they say, just illegal immigration. Indeed, Mitt Romney tried this line by saying he'd award a green card to any foreign student graduating with a degree in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. school.
So let me try to explain. First, even for someone like me whose family has been here for centuries, the tone of the debate on illegal immigration has been unsettling. Illegal immigration is down to historically low levels, the lowest in 40 years. Border security is higher than it has ever been in the nation's history, and deportations are at a modern high. Still, the GOP platform and Romney himself insisted that those illegal immigrants who are living here – some of them for decades – must self-deport.
I doubt there is a Hispanic anywhere who doesn't know at least one individual or family this policy would affect. Illegal immigrants are not numbers – they're people we know.
Telling workers, friends and family members, we don't want you here – no matter how productive and law-abiding you are and no matter how long you've lived here – sounds very much to us as if we're being told the same thing.
Whenever I write on immigration, I receive emails and letters inviting me to go back to Mexico, where I “belong.” Never mind that the last person in my family from Mexico left there in 1701 – and I don't speak Spanish.
If Republicans want to get back to winning 35 percent or more of Hispanic votes – the high is 44 percent – we've got to change not just the rhetoric but also the policies we pursue. Republicans had the chance to support the Dream Act, which would have granted legal status to illegal immigrants who came here as children and have lived most of their lives as Americans.
This should have been an easy call – but the stranglehold that anti-immigrant groups have on GOP elected officials pushed them to oppose this sensible and humane legislation. President Obama took advantage of Republican folly and issued an executive order that accomplished much of what a law might have. In doing so, he managed to re-ignite Hispanic enthusiasm for him, which had waned considerably since 2008, and win re-election despite a dismal record.
The illegal immigration problem is not difficult to solve if Republicans choose to do so. It means passing a flexible legal immigration law that would allow the numbers of workers to fluctuate with the economy's need for their skills. But this means admitting more legal farm and poultry workers, hotel and restaurant workers, laborers and domestic workers, as well as scientists, engineers and mathematicians because we need people at both ends of the skills spectrum.
If the Republican Party insists on blocking such legal immigration reforms, it will go the way of the Whigs.
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