It was not long ago that Latino voters viewed Republicans as the party of immigration. Really, it wasn’t that long ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger earned fully a third of the Latino vote in California’s gubernatorial recall election in 2003 – and his opponent was a high-ranking elected Latino, Democrat lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante.  In 2004, President George W. Bush drew 40 percent of Latino voters at the polls. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The more Republicans reflexively support restrictive immigration policies for the sake of political expediency, the more Latinos have looked elsewhere for political leadership. Indians, Chinese, and other immigrant groups will follow.

Why has the GOP wandered away from its immigration-friendly roots? At the same time many observers question the party’s faith even to its fiscally conservative core values, the path to regaining public trust on money matters could take the same route as one leading back to sensible immigration policies.

In 2004, Penguin Books published Right Nation, written by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of The Economist. The book contained many pearls of wisdom when it was published in 2004 and appears even more prescient now, seven years later. For instance, the Book – subtitled Conservative Power in America – explains, quite eloquently, that President George W. Bush was “creating a monster” by spending recklessly and asks the question, “Why have the Republicans squandered their reputation for fiscal prudence?” In retrospect, the book was years before its time. And, thankfully, the Republican party of 2011 has learned from the mistakes of the Bush administration and congressional Republicans and seem convicted in their zeal to cut spending and reduce benefits. It is in a chapter entitled, “How It Could Go Wrong” that the authors really hit the nail on the head, however.

While detailing the sometimes contradictory nature of the Republican Party, the authors write, “There is no reason why the Republicans cannot [continue to] make inroads into the Latinos provided they don’t shoot themselves in the foot by supporting restrictive policies on immigration.” After winning reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush’s choice for commerce secretary, Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez, traveled tirelessly throughout the country explaining the frustrating reality of undocumented immigrants “living in the shadows” while seeking employment, employers unable to retain their best employees due to artificially low visa limits, and the need for a guest-worker program. Underlying every one of his speeches was the very real possibility that Republican inaction on immigration would result in an increasingly powerful voting bloc leaving the party en masse. Here’s where things stand now: Seven years after Bush garnered robust Latino support nationally and five years after Gutierrez’ calls for reasonable action on immigration reform, myriad Republican politicians have been marginalized for supporting reform and Republicans are doing exactly what Michlethwait and Wooldridge warned they shouldn’t – supporting restrictive immigration policies and opposing reasonable ones. The inroads in the Latino community Republicans made by approaching the subject of immigration with intellectual honesty and political tact have disappeared.

In Washington State, the Latino population is exploding. Overall, people of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 11.2 percent of the population – the next largest minority group, Asians, register at 7.2 percent. In Eastern Washington, two counties are now majority Hispanic: Franklin and Adams. Kevin Graman, writing in the Spokesman-Review, explains that only ten years ago, a north Spokane Catholic Church had only a handful of parishioners on-hand for the Spanish-language service. Now? More than 200 regularly attend.

Nationally, Latinos accounted for a larger share of the electorate in 2010 than in any previous year. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 6.6 million Latinos voted in the mid-term elections in 2010. The 2010 Census counted 50.5 million Hispanics in the U.S., more than 16 percent of the population. The Hispanic population has grown by more than 46 percent since 2000. The numbers – especially the percentage-of-change numbers – are truly remarkable.

Hispanics and Latinos, together, have become one of the most powerful voting blocs in America.  But instead of supporting the type of reasonable policy positions put forward at the national level by President Bush, Senator John McCain or potential GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, restrictive and wrong-headed language and policy proposals rule the Party today.

At the State level, the most recent manifestation of restrictive immigration policy is Alabama’s SB 56. Among other things, it makes it illegal in Alabama to give a ride to an illegal immigrant. Of course, the boondoggle of Arizona’s SB 1070 will only cost taxpayers millions in court fees and many legal minds around the country expect its most important provisions will ultimately be deemed unconstitutional.

Herman Cain, a potential GOP nominee for 2012, recently remarked that the Justice Department “shouldn’t be suing Arizona…we ought to send them a prize.” I wonder aloud how many illegal immigrants Mr. Cain’s Godfather’s pizza chain employed in its kitchens. I wonder what he thinks of E-Verify.

The 2012 election will be about jobs and the economy. Like it or not, illegal labor is utilized in this country. It’s utilized to increase profits for business. It’s utilized to reduce prices for consumers. It’s utilized because of the entrepreneurial spirit of America.

If Republicans want to support immigrants and support legal immigration, why don’t leaders discuss remedies to the artificially low H1-b visa cap? That would certainly be sweet music to Microsoft, Google, and any of the wonderfully innovative start-ups in Washington State and beyond. Why don’t they discuss the incredible bureaucracy of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service? How about the arbitrary language surrounding the issuance of non-immigrant visas? Isn’t tourism a wonderful way to spur economic growth? Will any Republican speak eloquently about a guest-worker program? Eastern Washington and agriculture communities everywhere would be relieved to hear that kind of policy proposal.

Immigration reform isn’t about border enforcement and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, but it seems that’s all Republicans can talk about. It’s difficult to understand considering the political consequences. If the GOP wants to be the party of ideas, it must approach the subject of immigration the way it did not too long ago.


[photo credit: flickr]