Magazine | December 3, 2012, Issue

Amnesty Is No Solution

Hispanic voters want big government

Barack Obama’s popularity with Hispanics — he won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote — has triggered a stampede among Republican political and opinion leaders to support “comprehensive immigration reform.”

The formidable Charles Krauthammer encapsulated the new consensus in his syndicated column. A “single policy change” — amnesty — would fix the Hispanic “problem,” he predicted. Krauthammer employed the same reasoning that open-borders conservatives have endorsed for years: Hispanics “should be a natural Republican constituency,” he argued: “striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented, and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).”

Krauthammer’s logic may seem impeccable, but the facts on the ground don’t bear him out. It is Democrats’ core economic principles — their support of big government and extensive, taxpayer-funded social programs — that draw Hispanics into the Democratic camp, as much as, if not more than, Democrats’ opposition to immigration enforcement.

Dismantling Obamacare, for example, was a key plank of the Republican platform this year. On this issue the GOP was in sync with the Catholic Church, which vocally opposed the administration’s contraception mandate and charged that it violated religious liberty. How did that play with Hispanics? Not so well, primarily because Hispanics have the lowest rate of health insurance in the country and heavily rely on government-subsidized health care. Sixty-two percent of likely Latino voters support Obama’s handling of health care, including his Affordable Care Act, according to a Fox News Latino poll conducted in September. Only 25 percent of those voters want the act repealed.

No wonder a Latino pollster, in an August interview with USA Today, blasted a Spanish-language Romney ad promising to roll back Obamacare. The ad epitomized the Romney campaign’s cluelessness about the Hispanic vote, he said.

Republicans’ hostility to the Affordable Care Act this year was nearly matched by their contempt for California governor Jerry Brown’s voter referendum to raise taxes in order to avoid reforming the state’s bloated public sector. Latinos, however, favored the measure by margins of two to one in every pre-election survey. (California’s exit poll showed a closer spread — 53 to 47 percent — but leading pollsters have thrown the reliability of this year’s exit data into doubt.) Brown crowed after the vote: “I think this is the only place in America where a state actually said, ‘Let’s raise our taxes for our kids, for our schools, for our California dream.’” Maybe California was the only place this year that linked higher taxes to the “dream,” but it will likely not be the last place, given the ever-growing Latino share of the national population. A Pew Hispanic Center poll in 2002 found that 55 percent of the Latino electorate would rather pay higher taxes in order to support a larger government and more public services. The preference for big government is just slightly lower among Latino Republicans, putting them to the economic left of white Democrats. (By comparison, 77 percent of white Republicans would prefer a smaller government and lower taxes.)

California’s Hispanic population nearly equals its white population, making the state the leading edge of this country’s immigration-driven demographic transformation. California Latinos’ allegiance to the Democratic party and platform trumps their “social values” and ethnic loyalty, as I discuss in the current issue of City Journal. Hispanics backed San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for California lieutenant governor in 2010, rejecting incumbent Abel Maldonado, a Hispanic Republican previously appointed to the position by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Newsom, who had extra-legally and unilaterally instructed San Francisco officials to marry gay couples in 2004, was the epitome of a tax-and-spend liberal, and was endorsed by the state’s biggest Spanish-language daily on precisely that ground. In the 2010 race for state attorney general, Hispanic voters also helped elect ultra-liberal San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris over three-term Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley, a law-and-order moderate. Even Latinos in Cooley’s hometown went for Harris. Whites of all party affiliations, by contrast, favored Cooley over Harris.

#page#But wait! open-borders Republicans will insist. In 1994, Californians passed Proposition 187, a voter initiative denying most government benefits to illegal aliens. Then-governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, prominently backed the initiative. Surely it is the memory of Proposition 187 that repels California Latinos from their natural Republican home?

Actually, no. It is the Republican party’s purported economic philosophy (“The party favors only the rich”; “Republicans are selfish and out for themselves”; “Republicans don’t represent the average person”) that is the bigger turnoff for Latinos, compared with its immigration positions, according to a 2011 survey of Hispanic voters by Moore Information.

Moreover, Proposition 187 was immediately gutted by the federal judiciary. It is now ancient history, with little impact on today’s political attitudes. Jim Tolle, pastor of one of the largest Hispanic churches in Southern California, La Iglesia En El Camino, in formerly Republican Van Nuys, says that his congregation knows nothing about the initiative.

Sacramento’s Latino Caucus is now the biggest force in California politics pushing for racial and ethnic quotas. It puts continuous pressure on the state’s public universities to admit students by skin color, despite Proposition 209, a 1996 voter initiative banning race and gender preferences in government.

Hispanics’ support for the Democratic economic agenda, both in California and nationally, stems in part from their receipt of government assistance. Nationally, non-immigrant Hispanic households (i.e., households headed by a U.S.-born Hispanic) are enrolled in welfare programs at over twice the rate of U.S.-born white households (42 percent vs. 19 percent), according to an analysis of March 2012 census data by the Center for Immigration Studies. That welfare use is driven by Hispanics’ higher poverty rate — over twice that of whites. Lagging educational attainment and out-of-wedlock child-rearing in turn lie behind those poverty numbers. Hispanics have the highest dropout rate in the country. Over 53 percent of all Hispanic births are to unwed mothers, notwithstanding their “social conservatism,” in Krauthammer’s parlance, compared with 29 percent of white births. Hispanics’ teen-pregnancy rates are the highest of any American racial or ethnic group.

Hispanics’ welfare consumption — and their affinity for the Democratic message — will decline over time as they climb the economic ladder. In the short term, however, Hispanic economic progress is moving too slowly to matter politically. The share of Hispanic households using at least one major welfare program is actually larger in the third generation compared with the second (41 vs. 38 percent), as is the share living below the official poverty line (19 vs. 17 percent), according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

Moreover, Hispanics’ sympathy for big government represents a cultural predilection as well as an economic one. “We are a very compassionate people. We care about other people and understand that government has a role to play in helping people,” John Echeveste, founder of the oldest Latino marketing firm in Southern California, told me, in explaining why Republicans don’t do well among Hispanics.

Is an amnesty nevertheless worth it — a relatively costless way to add to the Republican rolls? (Forget any atavistic and abstract concerns you may have about upholding the rule of law; that battle is lost. Merely raising the issue — or noting that an amnesty would mock the millions of immigrants who did respect our laws — is a cringe-inducing faux pas.)

Well, besides a hypothetical uptick in Republican forces, what will the country get with an amnesty? It will almost certainly get an increase in illegal immigration, if historical precedent in the U.S. and Europe holds. It will most certainly not get stricter immigration enforcement against illegal aliens who enter after the amnesty. The ideological campaign against penalizing immigration lawbreaking is by now unstoppable, and is exemplified by the remarkable vilification of the Secure Communities initiative. Secure Communities merely notifies federal immigration agents when an illegal alien is arrested and booked into a local jail. But according to the increasingly successful argument against the program, to even think of deporting an illegal-alien criminal is unfair and heartless unless he has committed the most heinous of felonies. If it is no longer acceptable in the elite worldview to deport illegal-alien criminals, we’re certainly not going to penalize a job-seeker at a slaughterhouse who presents a fake ID. Even were Republicans to extract an E-Verify program (by which employers electronically check Social Security numbers) in exchange for amnesty, in other words, it would not be backed up by government action.

#page#Ironically, an amnesty may worsen Republicans’ alleged problems with the Hispanic vote in the long term, for it will attract more of the low-skilled, low-educated illegal aliens whose households disproportionately consume government services. Republican open-borders pundits have spent little time in classrooms such as those in Los Angeles’s Pico Rivera district, a low-income barrio southeast of downtown. Were they to do so, they would see the ever-swelling ranks of mostly unionized social-service workers — the anti-gang counselors, the dropout-prevention teams, the English as a Second Language specialists remediating U.S.-born students — who cater to the children of Hispanic single mothers and who themselves increasingly come from Los Angeles’s Hispanic communities, providing yet more electoral support for higher taxes and a larger government sector.

If, however, an amnesty we must have, ideally it would be limited to a DREAM Act–type plan, since the non-complicitous children of lawbreakers have an indisputable moral claim on an exemption from the law. All current DREAM Act proposals allow youthful illegal immigrants with criminal records to qualify for amnesty; any law that is actually passed should require a spotless record and a decent GPA. The no-criminal-history rule applies a fortiori to the broader-based amnesty that undoubtedly will follow. No convictions — even better, no arrests — for shoplifting, assault, drunk driving, graffiti, drug possession or sales, vandalism, littering, burglary, illegal vending, robbery — nothing.

The open-borders Right regularly insists that immigrants and their children are assimilating at a brisk clip. It would be nice to see them advocating as well, then, an English-only practice in all government communications. No more Tower of Babel ballots; leaving aside the critical question of whether a citizen should muster enough English to be able to read a ballot, once we offer multilingual voting, why shouldn’t every foreign language in a locality, no matter how few its speakers, be included? To be sure, learning at least one foreign language should be a cultural imperative for all students. But doing so should not be necessary to communicate with one’s fellow citizens. Any U.S. citizen who moved to a foreign country and expected its companies, residents, and public institutions to start using English with him would rightly be labeled an ugly American.

But the most important quid pro quo for an amnesty would be an overhaul of legal-immigration policy. The status quo privileges immigrants with family members already in the country; the better policy would favor immigrants with skills, education, and the ability to speak English. Democrats will fight such a change tooth and nail because they see the current family-reunification/chain-migration system as favoring their political interests, which they should be presumed to understand rightly.

Millions of Hispanic immigrants and their children have brought an admirable work ethic and respect for authority to this country. They have revitalized sullen ghettos with small businesses. Leaving aside amnesty, what should Republicans do to woo them? Nothing different from what they should already be doing with any other group of citizens: explaining the beauty of free enterprise and the creative power of markets; and stressing the essential role of personal responsibility, self-discipline, and learning in getting ahead. The Republican message should not be tailored to ethnic or gender groups. Nor should race or gender play a role in selecting political nominees. Ideas, achievement, and eloquence should be the only criteria for political advancement, a rule that will allow plenty of minority candidates — Marco Rubio comes most immediately to mind — to flourish.

– Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a co-author of The Immigration Solution.

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