Why Immigration Reform Won't Help the GOP Win Over Hispanic Voters

Republican skepticism of government overall, not the party's stance on borders, alienates the growing demographic.

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Reuters

Leading Republicans are jumping on the immigration reform bandwagon, hoping that taking the issue off the table will give them a second chance to make inroads with Hispanic voters. But even with a bipartisan deal looking within reach, the Republican party may not benefit as much as strategists expect.

Indeed, there's evidence that Hispanic resistance to the Republican Party is as rooted in the GOP's skeptical view of government, as it is their disagreement with GOP hardliners on immigration. The Republican Party calls for smaller government, but many Latinos look to government assistance as a necessity. Forty-two percent of Hispanic voters say that a government job offers the best chance of gaining career success, compared to only one-third of white voters, according to a June Allstate/National Journal/Heartland Monitor poll.

"Our argument about limited government is always harder to sell than a government program," Florida Senator Marco Rubio told Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday. "It always has been. It's easier to sell cotton candy than it is to sell broccoli to someone, but the broccoli is better for you, and the same thing with a limited government."

That's the argument Republicans are banking on. Texas Senator Ted Cruz made a similar pitch this weekend, saying that Hispanic voters should be a natural constituency for Republicans because 2.3 million of them own small businesses, and polls show that the economy, not immigration, is their top concern.

But attitudes about the government are not the only area where the GOP and Hispanics diverge. Asked whether they trusted President Obama and Democrats or Mitt Romney and Republicans on the economy, 71 percent of Latino voters preferred the president, according to a November Latino Decisions poll. The president polled similarly well on a host of questions, including women's issues and foreign policy.

Even on social issues where there is perceived to be a natural fit among religious Hispanic voters and the GOP, a divide exists. A majority of Hispanic voters now back gay marriage, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, for instance.

"I think Republicans are going to have to come up with a comprehensive plan for appealing to Hispanic voters," said one former GOP leadership aide. "Immigration is not going to solve the issue for them, but it will help."

So far that plan consists of talking about messaging. While Republicans acknowledge there's a communications gap with Hispanic voters, the strategy for repairing it remains murky. Many conservatives say it's time to retire language that could be viewed as nativist or racially insensitive. A document released Tuesday by the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican outreach group, offers advice to conservatives in how to talk about immigration without using language that may inadvertently offend Hispanics.

"I think there are some in the movement who portray immigration as a potential threat to the fabric of the culture," said former Democratic representative-turned-Republican Artur Davis in an interview. "A Latino hears that. That doesn't sound the way you want it to sound and it raises all kinds of red flags."

Given the longstanding divide between Hispanics and the GOP on immigration, it's hard to imagine all the damage will be resolved with one bipartisan reform bill. In California, Republicans did irreparable damage to their relationship with the state's sizable Hispanic population after former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson backed Proposition 187 in 1994 that prohibited illegal immigrants from using government services.

"If the only time you talked to your wife was on an issue you disagreed about how good would your relationship be?" asked California Republican party chairman Tom Del Beccaro said. "Republicans need to talk to them about all the issues they care about."

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Michael Catalini is an online editor at National Journal.

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