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Immigration reform is not a magic pill for winning minority votes.

Immigration reform advocates protest in Minnesota.

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Avik Roy

We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether,” said Sean Hannity in the aftermath of the election. “It’s simple for me to fix it . . . it’s got to be resolved . . . first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done, you know whatever little penalties you want to put in there, if you want, but then it’s done.” Hannity speaks for many Republicans in hoping that passing that bill will improve the GOP’s competitiveness with Hispanics. Done. But courting Hispanics by passing an immigration bill is like courting a woman by e-mailing her your LinkedIn profile.

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It would be a good thing to fix our broken immigration system. And if Marco Rubio is able to craft a bipartisan compromise that also manages to be good policy, more power to him. But if you’re an American whose vote is determined by which party does more for illegal immigrants, are you likely to ever vote Republican?

The conventional wisdom is that Latinos voted for Obama in greater numbers than usual because they were turned off by Republican rhetoric on illegal immigration. But that explanation is too simplistic. The real problem is that many Hispanics feel that Republicans don’t respect them. That feeling of disrespect — amplified by the liberal press — emerges from many things that Republicans say, and rhetoric on immigration is only one aspect of this regnant narrative.

Think about the way that some otherwise-sensible politicians and commentators annoy the Right by insulting people of faith. Think also of the appeal of politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum: They are more moderate than many Republicans on economic issues, but they intuitively understand the world in which religious Christians live. You might not be able to name a single social-policy issue on which Huckabee and Santorum disagree with other leading Republicans. But you also understand the reason that so many Christians support them.

This phenomenon, in reverse, is the problem of Republicans and recent immigrants. According to some conservatives, Hispanics are a natural liberal constituency, owing to their lower income and education levels (among other things), so any effort to woo them is futile. But why, then, did President Obama win Asian voters by an even wider margin, 73 to 26 percent? Asian Americans, on average, are wealthier and better educated than white Americans.

A big part of the problem, I think, is social. Many conservatives don’t live near or among Hispanics and Asians and therefore don’t readily have the opportunity to socialize with them. Think of all the people you know who have weighed in on the question of Republican outreach to Hispanics, and ask yourself: How many of us talk politics with our Hispanic friends? How many of us have Hispanic friends? Instead of reaching out in person, we do the equivalent of e-mailing Hispanics our LinkedIn profiles and then expecting them to vote for us.

We often express frustration at secular liberals who fail to see things from the perspective of religious Christians; similarly, immigrants are often disappointed by politicians who don’t try to see the world through their eyes. A cynic might call this “identity politics.” But it’s more in line with the thinking of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, conservatives who understood how the intangible bonds of culture and community shape our political life, in ways seen and unseen.

Many Texan Republicans, most notably George W. Bush, have been well liked by Hispanics, in large part because they interact with them every day. (Remember when Bush could credibly claim to be a uniter, not a divider?) And it was more Bush’s tone than his policy that helped him achieve much of his success with Texan Latinos.

Bush wasn’t fluent in Spanish, but he made the effort to reach out to Latinos in the language of their culture, which naturally earned their respect. He spoke sympathetically of immigrants’ aspirations, instead of stereotyping them as welfare moochers. Conservative Hispanics don’t tend to be welfare moochers. And if there’s one thing people hate, it’s being presumed guilty of something they have never done.

It’s worth recalling that a big chunk of America’s landmass — including California and Texas –was once part of Mexico. Most of that territory was forcibly acquired by the United States in the Mexican–American War of 1846–48. Given that history, conservatives might do well to remember that Mexican culture and the Spanish language are not foreign to America, but are deeply rooted in it.

So, while it’s important to ensure that new immigrants learn English, it doesn’t undermine the Republic to encourage more Americans to learn Spanish. Indeed, Republicans could probably boost their performance with Hispanics simply by requiring any Republican candidate for Congress or statewide office to take a beginner’s course in the language of Latin America.

The challenge with Asians is slightly different. As Jonah Goldberg noted in a recent column, many Asians aren’t Christian, and they view the GOP as a “club for Christians.” This is something I hear all the time from my otherwise-conservative relatives and family friends when I go home for the holidays. The irony is that Asians often look down on American culture because they see it as insufficiently oriented toward family and tradition and work. It’s possible to talk about Christian values in a way that appeals to non-Christians, but we don’t make enough of an effort.

Canadian conservatives seem to have figured this out. In 2006, ethnic minorities voted Liberal over Conservative by a ratio of three to one. Incredibly, by 2008, Conservatives had reached parity with Liberals on that measure. How did they do it? Not by caving on policy, but by showing up.

Jason Kenney — Canada’s “Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism” — logged long hours, and millions of frequent-flyer miles, asking Canada’s minority groups what was important to them. Among other things, he conducted focus groups in minority languages, because people are more likely to be frank when speaking in their native tongue.

His efforts paid off in the 2011 Canadian election. “Of the 18 seats [Conservatives] gained in [suburban Toronto], 14 are more than 45 percent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” wrote the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Some American conservatives might want to give up on minorities, but minorities are eminently winnable. If I were Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, I’d buy Jason Kenney a first-class ticket to D.C. tomorrow, strap him into a chair, and plug a flash drive into his brain. What the Canuck would tell the Yank is this: The more Republicans make a genuine effort to respect minorities’ languages, cultures, faiths, and values, the more likely it is that the GOP can find a broader audience for its core principles, and in turn build a truly durable conservative majority. 

 Avik Roy is a columnist for NRO.



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