What Both Parties Don't Get About Hispanics

Incentives for a deal on immigration reform are powerful, if unspoken.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (C), R-OH and National Security Advisor Susan Rice listen as US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington, DC, September 3, 2013. (National Journal)

The pressures against immigration reform are so obvious they're almost cliché. Most Republican politicians fear revolt from amnesty-loathing conservatives. Many Democrats see strategic advantage in keeping the wedge issue alive.

What our leaders don't see (or refused to acknowledge) are the false assumptions built into their positions, and the powerful incentives for both sides to compromise. They should read this report from Third Way, a Democrat think-tank with enough intellectual honesty to analyze data irrespective of its party bias.

Despite their rising political power, both Republicans and Democrats have tended to misrepresent Hispanic America.

Many Republicans view Hispanics as undocumented, poor, and unwilling to assimilate. But the data shows that Hispanics are overwhelmingly citizens and legal residents and have broadly adopted American values. Many Democrats emphasize immigration as the sole issue of importance to the community and assume Hispanics are liberals. But Hispanics are concerned with issues beyond immigration and hold complex — and often conservative views — on a number of issues.

The report's author, demographer Michelle Diggles, warned her own party, "Hispanics are not born liberal Democrats." While President Obama won the Hispanic vote in 2012 by 44 points, a majority of Hispanics identified at independents and only 32 percent as Democrats.

"And Hispanics express lukewarm feelings about the Democratic Party. Only 27 percent think the Democratic Party cares a lot about the issues and concerns of Hispanics," she wrote. "This and their lack of identification as self-described Democrats suggest that Hispanic attachment to the Democratic Party is shallow rather than deep."

There's more to worry Democrats in the report, including a "potential flashpoint" over religion. "Democrats cannot be complacent and should work to deepen their connections with the Hispanic community beyond immigration," she wrote. "Hispanics are strivers "“ entrepreneurs and small business owners. And Democrats have not been able to attract as much support from small business owners as the rest of the population."

The trends, of course, are far worse for Republicans. Diggles spells them out. About 17 percent of Hispanics are undocumented immigrants, according to her analysis, a number that has fallen sharply in recent years.  "Despite the lower levels of undocumented immigrants among the Hispanic community, the anti-Hispanic rhetoric unleashed by Republicans when they speak of immigration impacts the community writ large," Diggles wrote. "Further, many Hispanics born in the U.S. care deeply about immigration reform, regardless of their citizenship."

She cites Pew Research Center polling that suggests the Democratic advantage in party identification has grown from 22 points in 2006 to 48 points in 2012.

The Third Way report had started gathering dust on my shelf when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor reminded me this week of just how close the GOP has come to irrevocably alienating a strong majority of Hispanics, sealing its future as a minority party. Faced with a primary challenge from the tea party, Cantor's campaign sent out a mailer that claimed he is "stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty."

There is talk in Washington that the GOP House leadership may be willing to bend on immigration but only after candidates like Cantor weather primary challenges. White House adviser Valerie Jarrett suggested as much when she said, "We have a commitment from Speaker Boehner, who's very frustrated with his caucus." Boehner quickly denied her claim. What happened?

Either there was a commitment and Jarrett didn't understand Boehner's political predicament, which amounts to political malpractice at the White House, or there wasn't deal, and Jarrett was lying. Pick your poison. Obama's team doesn't fully understand how Congress and compromise works.

On the other hand, the president has ordered a delay of a deportation enforcement review that was certain to anger House Republicans and doom any hopes of immigration reform. Risking backlash from liberal backers, Obama gave the GOP political space to compromise. Liberal columnist Greg Sargent of the Washington Post reminded me that this is exactly the sort of leadership I accuse Obama of lacking. He's got a point.

But the proof is in the doing. Nobody gets credit for a compromise that isn't reached, a problem that isn't fixed. I don't have much faith that leaders of either party can put our country ahead of their politics, but Diggles' report concludes with a sentence aimed at the hardest hearts. "If Republicans abandon their stereotypes or Democrats don't do the necessary work to keep Hispanic voters in their column," she wrote, "we could easily see this community returning to the ranks of swing voters."