Memo to the GOP: Immigration Reform Much More Than Just a Policy

Supporters of the DREAM Act, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., third from right, wait to be arrested while performing an
Supporters of the DREAM Act, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., third from right, wait to be arrested while performing an act of civil disobedience at a rally for supporting the DREAM Act and immigration reform outside the White House in Washington, on Tuesday, July 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In a matter of weeks we've gone from promises of enacting "self-deportation" policies, to a real shot at bi-partisan, comprehensive immigration reform -- a whiplash, surely. How did we get here? For Republicans seeking a path to winning a national majority again, understanding what's really at play in the rapidly evolving immigration reform debate is of existential importance.

On the morning of Nov. 7, you could almost hear the political tectonic plates shifting. For the first time in American history, the Latino vote had broken through the 10 percent mark -- and the "demography is fate" rhetoric of the previous few months of the campaign was obsolete. Fate had arrived and helped bring down the Republicans' dream of taking back the White House.

In several key states, the Latino vote for President Barack Obama exceeded his margin of victory.

Several Republican leaders and opinion makers, most noticeably Speaker John Boehner and Sean Hannity, quickly dispatched with their previous anti-immigration reform positions and became more papist than the pope -- finally recognizing the need to deal with the GOP's "Latino problem" by embracing comprehensive reform.

Only hours before the election results were known, when these GOP pooh-bahs were expecting a Romney victory, "self-deportation" was the official Republican position. No surprise there, as in the January GOP debate Mitt Romney came out squarely in favor of this policy, a position that he repeated until the very end of his failed campaign.

Hannity and company's stunningly quick ideological conversion was as nakedly Machiavellian as it was practical. Their collective new argument -- for there were several new converts speaking out -- was that Latinos voted by a historical margin in favor of Obama because the GOP's position had been, obviously, repellent to Latinos.

Some of these new adherents to the cause of immigration reform even embraced the Dream Act, the perpetually blocked law in Congress that would give young people who were brought to the U.S. as minors a path toward citizenship through education and/or military service.

It had become Republican dogma, frequently espoused by candidate Romney during the primaries, and reiterated by his immigration adviser Kris Kobach, that the DREAM Act was a form of "amnesty." And even though in our society children are neither legally or morally held responsible for the acts of their parents, the passage of the DREAM Act was verboten. In April, as Romney had finally vanquished his primary foes and was now focused on the general election, Kobach -- who aside from being the secretary of state of Kansas would go on to write the GOP's anti-immigrant party platform, after authoring the now unconstitutional Arizona and Alabama "show me your papers" laws -- told the Washington Post, "I'd absolutely reject any proposal that would give a path to legal status for illegal aliens en masse. That is what amnesty is. I do not expect [Romney] to propose or embrace amnesty."

Mainstream media largely ignored the fact that Kobach, in a prominent role as the immigration adviser to Romney, enjoyed relationships with anti-immigrant, racialist organizations, but American Latino voters were becoming increasingly attuned to the unsavory connection between GOP policy and Kobach. As the host of a daily, national political talk show serving American Latino audiences, I've spent many an afternoon on-air discussing this connection with my listeners, including the provenance of the Arizona and Alabama anti-immigrant laws. Many of my colleagues in TV and print were also diligent in explaining the influential role that Kobach played in the Romney campaign as the house hard-liner and messenger on the "illegals" problem.

Romney was not alone in voicing Kobach's "self-deportation" strategy. The GOP's Latino surrogates, many who were guests on my show during the campaign, reinforced the Kobach-Romney position by refusing to reject it, or even modify its harsh message. Don't worry too much about the details of Romney's self-deportation, anti-DREAM Act "solution," they counseled -- and, by the way, President Obama did not deliver immigration reform in the first four years of his administration anyway. Besides, insisted one of my guests, a former adviser to John McCain's failed presidential candidacy, Latinos care more about the economy than they do about immigration.

Like Baghdad Bob, these Latino spokespeople tried to deceive voters by creating an alternative narrative that was both incredible and insulting -- for it made a bet that Latino voters were too dumb or ignorant to distinguish between the reality of Romney's stated "self-deportation" position and the fantasy spun by the Romney campaign in the post-convention fuzzy message that the candidate, if elected, would find some solution in spite of his party's own official position against reform.

Yet with every half-hearted promise of an " immigration solution," the idea that Latinos should vote for the party that had killed immigration reform the Bush administration in 2007, and then dispatched the DREAM Act in 2010 after the Democratically controlled House and a majority in the Senate had passed the bill, only to die a Republican led Senate filibuster, became more and more risible.

Republicans (including most of their Latino surrogates) simply did not get it -- they did not understand what immigration reform actually means to the majority of American Latino voters: Comprehensive immigration reform is an issue that transcends policy details.

Immigration is an issue that stands as a proxy for respect of Latinos as full members of American society. When Romney decried in the October 2011 GOP debate that "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals, " working on his property, he gave the game away. The scorn implicit in such a statement was felt by the majority of Latinos -- proven by Obama's constant Latino support throughout the election -- as a fundamental lack of respect. Romney's cozying up to Kobach and his tacit support of the anti-immigrant Arizona law sealed the deal. Yes, American Latinos care about the economy -- but immigration strikes deeper than our wallets; it strikes at the soul of who we are.

Now congressional Republicans are split between pragmatists like Karl Rove, who want to reform immigration in order to win elections, and the absolutists who promise to block comprehensive immigration reform regardless of the political fallout. And as the Party of Lincoln debates on which side of history it will stand, remember: Latinos can understand and will react to your debate. Whatever you decide in the coming weeks and months will impact the electability of GOP candidates in 2014, 2016 and beyond. The final outcome of your deliberations may restore your electoral prospects -- or consign the Republican Party to permanent minority status.