Amnesty: An Electoral Disaster
Increased immigration and amnesty will hurt the Republican party, not save it.


John O’Sullivan

Start with the GOP establishment’s claim that an amnesty would win more votes from Hispanics who now support the Democrats by large margins because of the GOP’s opposition to immigration. This is repeated endlessly, but it is false on almost all counts. Yes, Democrats do win the large majority of Hispanic votes — but not because of immigration policy. Both Gallup and the Pew Hispanic Center have found in polling that immigration ranks relatively low in importance to Hispanic voters. And far from opposing immigration, Republicans have presided for four decades over totals of legal immigration amounting to approximately 1 million new arrivals annually. Almost all recent controversy has focused on proposals to increase legal immigration and in particular to grant amnesty to people here illegally. Both Republicans and Democrats have been divided on these new measures, hence the refusal of the Democrats to propose them without the political cover of strong GOP backing. And when such measures have either passed or come to a vote, supporting amnesty and higher legal immigration has not helped Republicans at all. After Ronald Reagan signed the large IRCA amnesty in 1986, his immediate successor, George H. W. Bush, received just 30 percent of the Latino vote in the otherwise landslide victory of 1988. His son, George W. Bush, received 40 percent of the Hispanic vote (not 44 percent as is often wrongly claimed) in 2004 — but that was before he tried unsuccessfully to push through a series of immigration bills in the 2004 and 2006 Congresses. Following that, Senator John McCain — who actually led the fight for these bills (one of which was the McCain-Kennedy bill) — won only 31 percent of Hispanics in the 2008 election.

In short, amnesty is no certain vote-winner among Hispanics. This conclusion is confirmed by a recent academic study, “Issue Voting and Immigration: Do Restrictionist Policies Cost Congressional Republicans Votes?” by George Hawley (in Social Science Quarterly —  a mere snip at $35.00 from Wiley Publishing). With the usual careful caveats and qualifications, Hawley establishes that opposition to amnesty by Republican candidates did not lead to their losing Latino votes. On the other hand, although this aspect of the amnesty debate is usually glossed over, Hawley’s study also found that the pro-amnesty position of some Republicans alienated more non-Hispanic white voters than it gained. Across all voters, amnesty was a net vote loser. So the arguments hurled at the GOP by an odd coalition of its own leaders and donors and the media turn out to be the opposite of the truth. That may even understate the irony. For the Republicans today would certainly be better off electorally if they had succeeded in reducing levels of both illegal and legal immigration when they had the chance, since their demographic disadvantage today would be smaller. But that is electoral water under the bridge.

If amnesty and immigration policy cannot explain the anti-GOP “tilt” of Hispanic voters, then what does? We might start by examining their general political opinions. Poll after poll shows that Hispanics vote Democratic because they generally support liberal economic policies. For instance, the Pew Research Center reported that just 32 percent of Hispanics have a positive view of capitalism — this is the lowest percentage of any group surveyed. It is is lower than the 46 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats who have a positive view of capitalism —and even lower than the 45 percent of people who support the Occupy Wall Street movement. Similarly, the Pew Hispanic Center found in 2012 that 75 percent of Hispanics prefer “a bigger government providing more services” rather than “a smaller government providing fewer services.” Forty-one percent of the general public hold that view.

It goes without saying that these opinions are perfectly legitimate and respectable. I don’t share them myself and I believe that those who do will be inevitably disappointed by their results. But the plain truth is that people who hold such views are not natural Republicans but natural liberal Democrats. In a democracy you cannot rely on such voters to support conservative policies. And you certainly cannot add millions of them to your electorate, through either an amnesty or high levels of legal immigration, and not expect public policy to shift left, too. This point was expressed a decade ago by UPI’s Democratic political commentator, James Chapin, when he said sardonically: “The Republicans have a choice. They can either change their policy on immigration [to a more restrictionist one] or change their policy on everything else.”

Some argue Hispanics’ hostility to the GOP demonstrates that Republicans need to do a better job in getting their message out. No doubt. Of what political topic is that not true? But any Republican message will have to deal with the fact that Hispanics already have their own opinions and preferences. It will not be easy to change their views even in the long term because those views reflect their economic status, their experience, and their apparent interests.