The debate over an immigration-reform bill has given us a glimpse into the emerging war within the Republican Party. On one side are those sensitive to the party's demographics problem, who support a compromise. On the other are those who continue to oppose any bill that includes tens of thousands of work visas and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.
Since Mitt Romney's defeat in November, Republicans have worried about how to woo Latino voters. In a postmortem analysis of the election, the RNC concluded that the Republican Party needed to be more "inclusive and welcoming." Many conservatives looked nostalgically back to 2004, when more than 40 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush, compared to Romney's 27 percent. They believe that Latinos are naturally conservative, and are sure to line up in the 'R' column if the party can just fix its image with them.
But how? Some have shone a spotlight on Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Others rejoiced when the Latino George P. Bush -- one of the "little brown ones" that his grandfather George H.W. Bush mentioned years ago, referring to his dark skin -- announced that he would run for office in Texas. Still others think the answer lies in their party's embrace of the bipartisan Gang of Eight's immigration proposal.
None of those superficial solutions will work, however, until and unless the GOP confronts the discrimination that persists within its ranks -- and the discriminatory effects of its policies. That's why Latino conservatives are plotting a takeover of the party, setting the stage for the next major realignment of Republican politics.
What's more, some Latinos -- a faction led by Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican -- support restrictive immigration laws. They believe that immigrants must migrate legally, as they themselves did. In 1994, almost a quarter of Latinos in California voted for Proposition 187, which would have denied undocumented immigrants access to public education, health benefits, and other services (the referendum passed, but a federal court found it unconstitutional). In 2010, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 24 percent of "Hispanics," particularly men and those 50 years and older, supported Arizona's notorious S.B. 1070, which requires police to verify the immigration status of individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.*
But is any of that enough? One of my students told me recently about her Latina grandmother, who -- despite her conservative views on the economy, immigration, and marriage -- always votes for Democratic candidates. Why? Because, she told her granddaughter, no matter how much she agreed with the Republicans, that party would never see her as an American.
And therein lies the Republican problem. The party's makeover will fail unless it roots out the discrimination -- even racism -- that's embedded within the GOP. Redistricting, housing, identification, restrictive voting, and other Republican-sponsored laws affect Latinos and other minorities disproportionately. According to a Pew Research Center report, more than 80 percent of Latinos believe discrimination is an obstacle to their success in America -- and they see that discrimination as most deeply rooted amongst Republicans.
Latinos remember past efforts to exclude them, like signs in restaurant windows that read "no dogs or Mexicans allowed." They see the same attitude in many contemporary Republican-sponsored actions, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio's raids targeting Mexican communities in Arizona. Mitt Romney's calls for "self-deportation" recalled episodes from the 1930s and 1950s when millions of Mexicans -- labeled as economic burdens, Communists, and other kinds of threats -- were forcibly removed from the country. Alaskan Republican Rep. Don Young's recent comment about "wetbacks" on his father's farm did not exactly help.
To be sure, Democrats aren't always steadfast Latino allies. Both Republicans and immigrant-rights activists -- odd bedfellows in other circumstances -- have criticized the Obama Administration's record number of deportations and failure to push for comprehensive immigration reform during his first term. During the campaign season, conservative Latinos such as Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ruben Navarrette, Jr. noted that unemployment among Latinos was higher in 2012 than when Obama took office, and harped on the administration's efforts to cover up the Fast and Furious gun-smuggling scandal, which strained U.S.-Mexico relations.
But as long as the GOP supports policies that are both cause and effect of discrimination, conservatives will have trouble recruiting Latino voters. That's why some Latinos are plotting a takeover of the Republican Party. As Ryan Lizza reported in The New Yorker in November, conservative Latinos like Art Martinez de Vara, mayor of Von Ormy, Texas, foresee a day when the Lone Star State's Republican Party is Latino-run. Whites are becoming minorities in more states, as they already have in Texas, New Mexico, and California. That could inflame some conservatives' fears of a reconquista, or re-annexation of the Southwest by Mexico. But a reconquista of another sort -- of the GOP by Latinos -- may be the party's only chance for survival.
The conservative Hispanic Leadership Network has started to coach Republicans to use "tonally sensitive" language when speaking about issues that Latinos care about. But permanent change will require acceptance of Latinos as full-fledged Americans. To get there, the Republican Party would have to marginalize its most fervent nativists. The "Anglo-Protestant" culture that conservative intellectuals like the late Samuel Huntington believe is essential to American identity would have to be rejected. Arguments by conservative Latinos that America has always been a multiracial society forged by natives and immigrants alike would have to win the day. A small minority of Latinos already supports restrictive immigration and border policies, yet to attract more Latino voters the party would need to move towards more conciliatory positions.
Would even that be enough to turn the majority of Latinos into Republicans? Even if Latino conservatives do succeed in making non-discrimination a core principle of a new Republican Party, the GOP will continue to promote small government, lower taxes, and English-only language instruction in schools. And all that is out of step with the broad Latino majority. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, three-quarters of Latinos would rather have a bigger government that provides more services than a smaller one that provides fewer services. To be sure, that could change for Latinos, as it does for many immigrant groups as they become more prosperous. Surveys find that Latinos who make at least $75,000 per year are more likely to vote for conservative candidates. But for now, most Latinos believe that liberal economic policies still offer their best chance for upward mobility and success, not the conservative positions that have kept them as marginalized Americans.
Republican candidates could try to find consensus elsewhere. Even though the views of Latinos on same-sex marriage are changing, and most Latino business owners run small operations that earn them less than low-wage salaried positions, Republicans can seek common ground with Latinos on values issues and through appeals to their bootstrapping entrepreneurship.
But if Republicans want to earn a majority of Latino votes, they must consider the discriminatory effects of their policies, not just changes in appearance and tone. This is something that, even in these months of soul-searching, they've seemed less eager to do. But the choice may no longer be up to their current leaders. Many other societal shifts have caused political parties to reconstitute themselves in the past: opposition to the New Deal, resistance to civil rights, Nixon's silent majority, or the Reagan revolution. In the same way, Latinos, as an increasingly powerful voting bloc, will transform party politics now and in the future. They will become the driving force of the Republican Party, if that party is to survive.
* According to the 2010 census, "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" are synonymous ethnic identifiers. All classify as racially "White." When conducting surveys, pollsters tend to use the term "Hispanic," instead of Latino or Spanish origin. The use of these different terms reflects the variety of ways that members of these groups -- Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc. -- have identified themselves over time.