The immigration issue has roiled the Republican Party as its presidential candidates attempt to appeal to the conservative, anti-immigration wing of their party in order to win the nomination. But, as a consequence, the GOP is likely to pay a heavy price in the 2016 national elections.
Businessman Donald Trump fired the opening salvo last June when he announced he would run for president. "When Mexico sends its people they're not sending their best," he said. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're bringing rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." Trump has proposed building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (with a nice door) and promised he will get Mexico to pay for it.
Trump raised the stakes this past Wednesday on MSNBC when he said, "You're going to have a deportation force, and you're going to do it humanely." But he has yet to offer any specific details on how he will send an estimated 11 million undocumented workers out of the country. It is hard to picture a "deportation force" humanely separating a Latino mother from her American-born children.
Nonetheless, Trump's position on immigration has resonated with party members. In a national poll published in Roll Call, 49 percent of those identifying themselves as Republican agreed that Trump would best handle the immigration issue. Trump's percent was five times higher than the second-place finisher, Sen. Marco Rubio. Trump has been so successful exploiting immigration to the Republican Party base that Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz are now publicly quibbling over each others prior positions on the issue.
The Republican National Committee following Gov. Mitt Romney's loss in the 2012 national election identified immigration as a critical issue. Romney had received just 23 percent of the Latino vote in his defeat. By contrast, President George W. Bush received 40 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 re-election. The RNC released an autopsy report in early 2013 that called on Republicans to reach out to Latinos. "Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report stated. "If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all."
Many Republican strategists have amplified this position. Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, observed, "The long-term problem for Republicans is that in every demographic that is growing in the country, Democrats are gaining market share," he said last year to the Los Angeles Times, and "in every demographic group in the country that is shrinking, Republicans are gaining market share."
Romney beat President Barack Obama by 20 percent among white voters according to exit polls. A Gallup Poll, released just ahead of the GOP autopsy report, showed that Non-Hispanic whites made up 89 percent of Republican self-identifiers, while Hispanics were only six percent of that group. The problem for the Republican Party is that the Non-Hispanic white population is shrinking. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are more than 55 million Hispanics, 17 percent of the U.S. population, and their number is growing.
The GOP may think that Senators Rubio and Cruz, both Cuban Americans, can help the party appeal to more Latinos, but each of their stands on immigration has hurt them among this voting segment. Further, nearly 65 percent of the Latino population is Mexican American, while only four percent is Cuban American, and most Cubans live in Florida. Nationally Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, prefer Democrats over Republicans. And 81 percent of Latinos believe that unauthorized immigrants should not be deported. As Gov. Rick Perry once said, "Oops."
Donald Trump's talk of a border wall and deportation squads may play well with conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but it has seriously damaged the Republican brand with most Latinos. It is likely that the Republican candidate will have to win 40 percent of the Latino vote in order get elected president. So don't count on the ultimate GOP standard bearer to maintain the same hard-line position on immigration in the general election as he or she did to win the nomination. For instance, over the last few years both Rubio and Cruz have each evolved on immigration for political expediency. I mean, this is politics after all.
Of course, who knows what will happen on immigration if the Republican nominee ends up being Donald Trump. But he will promise to make it both huge and humane!