by Bob Quasius
Absolutely not! The GOP has not been hijacked by immigration extremists also known as Nativists, despite the claims of one Texas Latino Republican leader who quit the GOP in disgust following Herman Cain’s electrified border fence proposal. We share his disgust at Herman Cain, but don’t see how leaving the GOP is a winning strategy to influence the GOP in a positive way on immigration. Moreover, according to the Texas GOP an electrified border fence has never been a part of their platform and never was discussed within the party.
The true situation is not a black and white picture, but a mosaic with shades of gray. First, a majority of Republicans “favor providing a way for illegal immigrants in the U.S. to gain citizenship, if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs”, according to a recent PEW Research poll. It’s obvious that contrary to the perception of many, the GOP is deeply divided on immigration reform, with “staunch conservatives” split 49%/49%, while “main street republicans” favor reform 58%/39%, and “Libertarians” favor reform 66%/32%. It’s hard to conceive that a majority of Republicans would elect party leaders who hold extreme and contrary views on a single issue. If most Republicans were Nativists, we’d expect support for immigration reform to be in single digits, with even stronger support for more enforcement.
The same PEW Research study shows strong support for more immigration enforcement, with 95% of “staunch conservatives”, 88% of “main street conservatives”, and 93% of “Libertarians” “supporting stronger enforcement of immigration laws and border security.” However, Americans favor more enforcement by 78% to 19%, so the attitudes of Republicans are not much different than public opinion. Personal responsibility and ‘rule of law’ are core Republican values, so naturally Republicans lean towards more enforcement. It’s also noteworthy that a majority of Republicans recognize the disconnect between our legal immigration system and the needs of our economy and support reform.
The GOP is not a monolithic organization but a mosaic of 50 state parties, with an umbrella organization, the RNC, at the national level. The immigration issue is red hot in Arizona, a state with a long history of racial and ethnic conflict, and states that are uncomfortable with the rapid growth in the Hispanic population, particularly in the Southeast. Arizona-style “enforcement on steroids” immigration legislation was introduced this year in at least 26 states, including many states with majority GOP legislatures, and yet such bills passed only in Utah, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Indiana. Often these copycat bills failed to even pass out of subcommittees with majority Republican legislators. Not a single birthright citizenship bill passed in any state legislature. In other words, many Republican legislators, after understanding all the constitutional and practical law enforcement issues associated with these bills, voted with Democrats against these measures.
One benchmark of immigration extremists is membership in State Legislators for Legal Immigration, where one can often find the most extreme anti-immigration legislators listed in their members list. SLLI has deep ties to Nativist/population progressive groups such as FAIR, and SLLI leadership is dominated by the worst of the worst extremists, such as Daryl Metcalfe and Russell Pearce. In comparing the SLLI member list to the number of legislators in each state, it becomes obvious these immigration extremists are a very small minority of the total GOP legislators in each state. For example, California has just one member, Tim Donnelly, among 120 legislators. Tim Donnelly is a notorious immigration extremist, who founded the California Minutemen years ago and narrowly won a primary race against the establishment candidate by 600 votes.
So how does this perception of the GOP as Nativist come about? A better explanation is that immigration extremists and those who pander to extremists are the most vocal about immigration, and the media naturally reports on their sensational commentary. We’ve all heard about the Kansas legislator who called for shooting immigrants from helicopters like hogs, the Tennessee legislator who compared pregnant immigrants to rats, the Alabama legislator and sponsor of Alabama’s extreme immigration law, who said it is time to “empty the clip” in the fight against illegal immigration, and the Alabama congressman who said he would do anything short of “shooting” undocumented immigrants. We’re disgusted at rhetoric such as this, but is this representative of the GOP in general? We don’t think so, and one of our goals is to root out this small minority of extremists from the GOP during the nominating process.
Moderates are less likely to speak out on this divisive issue, and tend not to make sensational comments, so there is less interest from the media in reporting their comments. Democrats are quick to condemn such extremism and use a ‘broad brush’ to portray these extremists as the face of the GOP. Democrats want to keep Latinos on the ‘liberal hacienda’, though 60% of Latinos are conservative or moderate, and the Democratic Party does little for immigration reform. Immigration extremists become perceived as the face of the GOP, when in reality most Republicans don’t support extreme positions on immigration.
The ‘safe’ position for many GOP politicians during primaries is to avoid divisive issues and appeal more to conservative elements, then pivot to the center during the general election. In this case calling for more enforcement is a ‘safe’ position, while supporting immigration reform is risky due to the division. Also, intensity levels are a key indicator of who will actually turn out at straw polls, nominating conventions, and primary races. Opponents of immigration reform are more concentrated among the tea party wing, and tea party supporters tend to be intense on various issues, which makes them highly motivated primary voters, enhancing influence in the nominating process beyond their numbers.
With a crowded presidential field, only one presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, supports immigration reform, while the others prefer to talk about enforcement in ways that show they are “tough”, and often duck the issue by claiming the border must be secured first before immigration can be reformed, though the border will never be secure enough for those who oppose immigration reform. For the same reason, six candidates are using the Marco Rubio/Univisión conflict as a reason to duck the Univisión debate, where they will likely be asked about immigration in front of a national audience of Hispanics who mostly support immigration reform.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that a GOP presidential candidate can win the general election without substantial Latino vote. According to a recent impreMedia/Latino Decisions analysis, the GOP presidential candidates are not resonating with Latinos, but GOP candidates need 40% of the Latino vote to win the general election. Unfortunately, once the nominee is selected it may well be too late for him to take back his immigration rhetoric, which will be come a weapon for Obama to retain more of the Latino vote, despite his own horrible track record as ‘deporter in chief’ and a complete failure to even introduce immigration reform.
Many GOP critics fault the RNC for not chilling the rhetoric, without understanding the role and mission of the RNC. I researched and could not find a single example where either the RNC and DNC has ever repudiated one of their party’s candidates for anything. The political parties manage the nominating and platform process. Party leaders in many ways are referees, who cannot take positions that even give the appearance of favoring one primary candidate over another. The process by which candidates are nominated and platforms developed is a democratic one, in which members of the political parties weed out unsuitable candidates and eventually select the nominee. Herman Cain’s electrified border fence is indeed outrageous and insensitive considering how many immigrants already die each year crossing our border. However, it’s not realistic to expect the RNC to repudiate Cain, and the failure to repudiate Cain in no way is evidence the GOP has been hijacked by Nativists.
The prominent evangelical leader Sam Rodriguez has asked all of the presidential candidates to sign a pledge to chill the rhetoric. We heartily approve of this pledge by Rev. Rodriguez, and wish the presidential candidates would all commit to chill their rhetoric and provide practical solutions to solving immigration.