My recent column on amnesty and the GOP elicited a number of very passionate comments. I will try to deal with some of them in a separate posting, but one common criticism deserves an immediate response. This was that I had done a serious wrong in focusing on whether amnesty would be bad for Republican electoral prospects, when the right question is whether or not it would be good for America.
The criticism is fair but misdirected. The main focus of my writings on immigration has long been on devising the policy that is best for America and Americans, while taking into account the interests of immigrants, too. (After all, I am one.) Inviting large numbers of people into the country and then treating them harshly, as mere factors of production, is the immigration policy favored by some business advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform.” It is rejected by almost all conservative immigration reformers, notably Mark Krikorian of this parish, as both inhumane and unrealistic.
Indeed, even in the column criticized I began by pointing out that we should be more concerned about good public policy than about electoral consequences (though the two are intertwined) when debating both amnesty and our broader immigration policy. But since the election, both Republican leaders and establishment Big Feet commentators have been discussing almost solely the political impacts of these policies, rather than their policy implications. Worse, they have assessed the former incorrectly, assuming that opposition to amnesty is an electoral albatross around the GOP’s neck without either examining the evidence or even thinking seriously about it.
Unless that belief is subjected to rational criticism (and shown to be either greatly exaggerated or entirely false), there will be no discussion of immigration policy worthy of the name. Instead, in an atmosphere of panicked compassioneering, the GOP will jump off the policy cliff reciting “Give me your poor, your huddled masses . . . ”
So, for the remainder of this column, the electoral impact of immigration will take center-stage. Let me recap the story so far: In the last column we saw that the single most direct, primary, and unavoidable effect of declaring an amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. would be a net 2.2 million extra votes for the Democrats. There might be more than 2.2 million votes — the assumptions underlying these estimates were deliberately cautious. Realistically, however, there could not possibly be fewer. The arithmetic is clear and unforgiving.
So the test that any advocate of amnesty (however qualified) has to pass is to demonstrate how to get at least 2.2 million votes for the GOP — plus one additional vote — in order to offset the primary electoral effect of amnesty. Can it be done? And if so, how?
The constituency from which such votes might theoretically be drawn is existing U.S. Hispanic citizens, whether U.S.-born or naturalized immigrants. That seems to be universally accepted. Republican leaders and consultants believe that these voters can be won over because they are “natural Republicans.” When asked to flesh out this claim, they point out that they are hard-working, entrepreneurial, and hold conservative moral views. What deters these natural Republicans from going so far as actually to vote Republican, it is argued (or, more frequently, intuited), is their distrust of a party that might deport their Hispanic relatives and friends and that is therefore seen as generally unwelcoming to immigrants. Remove that, and the natural Republicans will come home.
Alas, this cargo of day dreams and wishful thinking is enough to sink the Good Ship Lollipop.
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.
Consider their underlying demographics. Three-fourths of Hispanic voters are U.S.-born. Of households headed by U.S.-born Hispanics that have children, 50 percent are headed by unmarried women, compared with 29 percent of U.S.-born whites. Of households headed by U.S.-born Hispanics, 40 percent use one or more major welfare programs, compared to 19 percent of U.S.-born whites. Of households headed by U.S.-born Hispanics, 45 percent have no federal income-tax liability, compared to 29 percent of U.S.-born whites. These statistics explain their liberalism far better than any party’s immigration policy. They also make the Republican message on anything — thank you, James Chapin — a very tough sell.
Could it be that despite these statistics Hispanics are still natural Republicans because, as the mantra goes, they are hard-working, family-oriented, and entrepreneurial? Well, this tempts me . . . Is hard work really the first thing that springs to mind when we think of the modern Republican party? Do Republicans really work harder than Democrats (especially at the lower end of the job market)? And are Hispanics, whether U.S.-born or immigrants, likely to identify more with Republican small-business owners than with unionized service workers? These questions answer themselves. Republican arguments of this kind show minds so corrupted by sloganizing and sound bites that they no longer think what the words they use really mean.
Of course, most Americans work hard and love their families and there are thousands of business owners from every ethnic group. But the Census data show that Hispanic natives are less likely to be married, to hold jobs, to own their own businesses, or to pay federal income tax than the non-Hispanic whites from whom the GOP draws most of its votes. They are also more likely to live in poverty and access welfare programs. Such facts are not eternal truths; they can change over time, quickly for individuals, more slowly for population groups. But so long as they exist, they make it very difficult for the GOP — a party whose central message is self-sufficiency, lower taxes, and traditional family values — to appeal to Hispanic voters. Add in the fact that Hispanics benefit from liberals’ race-specific policies, such as affirmative action. Or will the GOP become the party of ethnic preferences, as Chapin would predict, in order to ensure Hispanic support?
Again, the plain fact is that Hispanic Americans are a natural liberal-Democratic constituency, with or without an amnesty or an open-borders immigration policy. If you still doubt this, consider the case of Puerto Ricans. All are American citizens at birth, so they do not directly face immigration issues. Yet they are the most reliably Democratic of all Hispanic voters.
Faced with this discouraging prospect, Republicans take refuge in optimism. They forecast that, like the Italians, the Irish, and the Eastern Europeans, Hispanic-Americans will become Republican in greater numbers over time. That may well happen. But all the groups cited took between 60 and 120 years to switch from the Democratic party to the GOP. It was one result (and one indicator) of their assimilation. And they melted more quickly into the great American majority because a restrictive immigration policy was in place during that time which, along with “Americanization” and World War II, discouraged the maintenance of separate ethnic identities and encouraged national unity.
Today, instead, we have mass immigration and multiculturalism. One result of this combination means any switch of Hispanics to the GOP is counterbalanced by the arrival of new immigrants who share the liberal-Democratic interests and opinions of most Hispanic Americans. In short we are importing Democrat voters. Another result is that Spanish-speaking ethno-cultural enclaves grow, prosper, and retard the assimilation of those who live in them. New immigrants participate in American politics under the guidance of overwhelmingly liberal Hispanic elites (e.g., journalists, community leaders, politicians). It takes longer for them to shake off a Democratic partisanship that is reinforced by ethnic loyalty. In short we are preserving Democratic voters. This does not mean Hispanics are a lost cause for Republicans. What it does mean is that adding millions of new Hispanic voters is likely to postpone electoral victories for conservatives for many decades.
Republican leaders, at the behest of the business community, have supported mass immigration since the 1960s. Conservatives are struggling to deal with the long-term consequences of that decision. Embracing amnesty and continued or more rapid mass immigration will make things even worse for the party. Advocates of small government must figure out how to gain more support from those who are sympathetic to their message. But given the new electorate that mass immigration is creating, this will be no easy task. Without changes in immigration policy, it will be all but impossible.
So those who say we need comprehensive immigration reform are correct — it’s simply not the reform they advocate. What we need is an immigration reform that would benefit America. Conservatives in Congress could draw up such a bill in very short order. The American people would then have a choice between two different immigration reforms. If nothing else, this would educate them, and the Republican establishment especially, in some surprising realities of current immigration.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.