Turning conservative opinion around on the contentious issue of immigration will not be easy. But without such a shift, conservative candidates will find it difficult to win national and statewide elections as they face an electorate that includes a rapidly expanding share of Hispanic voters.

Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States. Numbering more than 50 million, Hispanics constitute 16 percent of the overall population; and their proportion will continue to increase even if all immigration—legal and illegal—were to cease today. On average, Hispanics are younger than non-Hispanic whites (with a median age of 27 compared with 42), give birth to more children (2.4 to 1.8), and enjoy greater longevity (81 years to 78). These factors guarantee that the Hispanic share of the population—and the electorate—will continue to rise. What is more, 22 percent of all children in the United States today are Hispanic, and the majority of them are the offspring of at least one foreign-born parent. This fact alone guarantees immigration will remain a potent issue among Hispanic voters for a generation or more. In 2012, Hispanics represented 10 percent of the electorate, up from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004. In several battleground states, they represented a larger faction: 14 percent in Colorado, 17 percent in Florida, and 18 percent in Nevada, all of which Mitt Romney lost. Even in traditionally non-Hispanic areas of the country, including Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Hispanic voters were a factor.

It is no wonder, then, that many prominent Republicans and conservative opinion leaders, including those who have opposed comprehensive immigration reform in the past, are now reconsidering their position. House Speaker John Boehner summarized the view by suggesting “a comprehensive approach is long overdue,” signaling his openness to legislation that would extend legal status to at least some of the 11 million illegal immigrants living here now. The difficulty they and other Republican leaders face will be persuading the base of the conservative movement to accept a change. To fathom the complexity of the challenge, one must first understand how conservatives managed to box themselves into this corner.


Immigration was barely a blip on the list of policy concerns of American voters 10 years ago. In 2003, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 1 percent of Americans considered immigration the most important problem facing America. And while the number of those concerned about immigration grew over the decade, driven in part by the legislative debate on the issue in the mid-decade, even at its high point in 2006 and 2007, only 6 percent listed immigration as their major issue. Nonetheless, immigration was a pressing concern for many highly committed, highly involved conservatives. There is good reason to infer from exit polls at the time that immigration was far more important to conservative voters than to the public at large. Why?

One might assume that the issue became important to voters because of the tremendous influx of illegal immigrants in this decade. But illegal immigration actually peaked during the boom of the late 1990s, after which it declined almost steadily except for a one-year increase in 2004, after President Bush raised the issue of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans (some of them U.S. citizens) during the 1930s. And, though conservatives are loath to acknowledge it, President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any president in modern history—a fact that explained why the president’s popularity among Hispanic voters dwindled after 2008.

That changed once the presidential race got into full swing.

In June 2012, the president issued an executive order granting a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation for illegal immigrants who had come here before the age of 16 and met certain qualifications (having completed high school or enlisted in the military, paid taxes, and committed no serious crimes). This bit of quasi-legal pandering came after a very long Republican primary season during which candidates tried to outdo each other to see who could be toughest on illegal immigration. The harsh rhetoric and tough policy proposals were designed to appeal to conservative primary voters; it terrified Hispanics.

The most outrageous proposal came from the ex-restaurateur Herman Cain, who was briefly, and bizarrely, the frontrunner in the polls for a while in the late fall. Cain said that if elected, he would consider stationing military troops on the border “with real guns and real bullets” to stop illegal immigrants from crossing, and he proposed an electrified fence with signs posted in Spanish and English: “It Will Kill You—Warning.” It is almost unimaginable that similar threats against any other group would have been treated so cavalierly. But illegal immigrants had become fair game for the most vituperative rhetoric and punitive policies among Republicans. Virtually all the candidates supported state laws that targeted not only illegal immigrants and those who hired them, but anyone who rented to them, or, in some cases, even allowed them to be passengers in private automobiles.

In an effort to demonstrate his “severely conservative” credentials, Mitt Romney offered his own solution to the problem of the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States: They should “self-deport,” he said. A moment’s examination of how the loss of 11 million people would devastate the U.S. economy reveals what a catastrophe such a preposterous proposal would be if it were ever to become reality: millions of homes and apartments left vacant; a drop in revenues for sales, property, income, and payroll taxes; a huge drop in the market for consumer goods and services. Romney’s policy was both delusional and mean-spirited. Illegal immigrants live in families that often include legal immigrants as well as American citizens, who are their spouses, children, siblings, and even parents. Encouraging the breakup of these households isn’t exactly the kind of pro-family policy Republicans tout—and advocating it did much to frighten and alienate Hispanics, both immigrants legal and illegal and the native-born.

After securing the Republican nomination, Romney began to soften the self-deportation rhetoric, but it was too late: The phrase became a plank in the Republican platform, as did support for state laws intended to force out illegal immigrants. One such law, passed in Alabama and mentioned glowingly in the GOP platform, also bars illegal immigrants from enrolling in or attending public colleges and discourages them from attending public schools by requiring school districts to determine the legal status of students and submit annual reports to the state.

Kris Kobach, Republican secretary of state of Kansas and a longtime activist in the movement to stem both illegal and legal immigration, was Romney’s chief immigration adviser throughout the primaries and largely wrote the language of the platform on immigration. He was also the chief draftsman for the Alabama law, among others. Smart and able, Kobach began his career as a public servant working for Attorney General John Ashcroft during the George W. Bush administration, where he advanced the notion that states had “inherent authority” in immigration enforcement. The theory became a crucial element of various state anti-illegal immigrant laws. Kobach then became part of the well-financed and extensive network of anti-immigration groups that includes, most prominently, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR),

NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and the Immigration Reform Law Institute. These organizations raise much of their money through direct mail. Sending tens of millions of incendiary appeals to potential donors has helped radicalize the views of many who once believed in Ronald Reagan’s powerful invocation of the idea that America is a nation of immigrants. In addition, the megaphone of conservative media has amplified the issue through talk radio, cable-news talk shows, Internet sites, email lists, opinion pieces, and dozens of best-selling books warning of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.

Militant, single-issue minorities often dictate policies within political parties, even when the majority does not agree. Opinion polls, including 2012 exit polls, show that most Republicans favor some sort of path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants already here. But “most Republicans” don’t necessarily hold the views of movement activists, and they care far less about issues in any case. Now, after tens of millions of dollars and thousands of media hours spent convincing conservatives that illegal immigrants pose a huge threat to America, it will be a difficult and slow process to get them to change their minds.


So, how to begin? First, conservatives should be comforted and calmed by one key fact, if it is explained to them. Security is better than it has ever been thanks to 650 miles of fencing at the southern border, more border-patrol agents, better surveillance and technology, and more deportations—all policies conservatives have advocated.

But they also need to understand the circumstances that drive illegal immigration and how best to address them. Immigrants fill important niches in the American labor market, at both the high and low ends of the skills spectrum. Our current immigration laws do not admit sufficient numbers of legal residents to fill those jobs. Oddly enough, conservatives do seem to see the value in immigration when it comes to highly skilled immigrants. During the campaign, Romney said he would like to staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign student graduating from an American college with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math. Yet the need for foreign workers is just as great in many low-skilled industries such as agriculture, meat and poultry processing, and hospitality. These jobs don’t pay enough to attract U.S.-born workers; raising wages sufficiently to entice Americans to take them, which is a key notion for certain conservative thinkers, would simply drive many of these jobs out of the country.  

The better alternative would be to increase the number of legal resident and temporary visas available to meet the demand for labor. Instead, conservatives have pushed for more punitive measures to punish employers who hire illegal immigrants because they don’t have access to adequate numbers of willing American workers or legal immigrants to fill their jobs. The myopia on this issue is puzzling. Many argue that current law should not be changed unless and until the federal government fully enforces current sanctions against all employers who hire illegal immigrants. But the law to which they refer, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (perhaps better known as Simpson-Mazzoli), is based on a flawed premise that should be deeply troubling to conservatives. It requires all employers—including private individuals who want to hire someone to clean their house, care for their children, or cut their lawn—to determine the legal status of anyone they consider hiring. In essence, the law turns every employer into an immigration-enforcement agent, filling out paperwork, checking documents, and keeping records on file for at least one year after the worker’s employment terminates. This Big Government-cum-Big Brother approach is the antithesis of conservatism.

So what is it about illegal immigration that has made it such a cause célèbre on the right? Conservatives are worried that the Hispanic influx will lead to the creation of a new, permanent underclass of the poorly educated, welfare-dependent, and criminally inclined. Second, they fear that respect for the rule of law is being damaged in the failure—and in some cases, the outright refusal—to enforce existing legislation. These are serious concerns, and they must be addressed seriously. The demographic profile of Hispanic immigrants should encourage confidence that, like most immigrants of previous generations, they may start off life in America on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, but they—or at least their children—are not likely to stay there. Hispanic immigrants may be poorer on average, but they are not mired in the underclass. They are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in married households with children, and with a father who works. Hispanic males are also more likely than others to be in the labor force; male illegal immigrants have the highest labor-force participation rates of any group, 94 percent.

Hispanic immigrants do have lower levels of education than other groups, though the education levels of recent cohorts have risen significantly over the last several decades, with 41 percent having completed high school and 18 percent graduating college. More important, their children are rapidly catching up with non-Hispanic whites in education levels. A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that Hispanics overall are catching up with non-Hispanic whites in years of education completed, lagging behind by 10 percent in high school graduation and college attendance. And second-generation Hispanics are actually more likely to attend college and earn four-year degrees than those from the third generation or those with even deeper roots in American soil.

Then there is the belief—the sadly and horribly mistaken belief—that Hispanic immigrants have increased crime rates in communities where they settle, especially those home to large numbers of illegal immigrants. That is not only untrue; it appears to be quite the opposite of reality. According to a study of crime rates by Congressional Quarterly, of the 10 safest big cities in the United States, six (El Paso, New York, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Denver) have Hispanic populations that range from 20 to more than 80 percent. Of those populations, 30 percent or more are immigrants.

Meanwhile, the 10 most dangerous big cities have relatively small populations of Hispanics (with the exception of Houston). Indeed, El Paso has been the safest big city in America for several years running, despite a population that is 82 percent Hispanic, including 30 percent who are foreign-born. Overall in the United States, crime has fallen to historic lows over the last 20 years—at the very time that the population of illegal immigrants living here has dramatically increased. Even Arizona, which has been the main point of illegal entry from Mexico in every year since 1998, has seen crime fall by almost 40 percent during that same period, a rate faster than the national average.

Nonetheless, many conservatives still view illegal immigrants as criminals because, by definition, they have violated the nation’s immigration laws. Thus, if conservatives are to accept giving illegal immigrants legal status, they will have to be assured that the rule of law does not suffer as a consequence. But I would argue that keeping an ill-conceived and unenforceable law—Simpson-Mazzoli—on the books for 26 years has itself done great damage to the rule of law. It has encouraged law breaking by those who have no legal way to come to the United States to fill jobs for which they are needed and wanted. The Volstead Act, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol, did far more to undermine the rule of law than its repeal. Just as Prohibition was repealed, the United States would be better off, and the rule of law would be on more solid ground, if Simpson-Mazzoli were repealed or replaced.

Still, conservatives and all Americans have a right to expect that those who have broken the law by coming or staying here illegally should make some restitution. The details of that restitution—civil fines, the payment of any taxes owed, and perhaps longer waiting periods to be eligible for citizenship—are open for discussion. But if conservatives hope to influence that debate, they must give up the notion of punitive penalties or the hope that these immigrants will simply go back to the land from where they came.

It was not so long ago that conservatives saw Hispanics as potential allies and family-oriented, religious, socially conservative recruits. Indeed, in the wake of Romney’s defeat, Republicans have again taken note of the fact that Hispanics logically belong in their broad coalition.

The general affiliation of Hispanics with the Democratic Party will not change quickly, even if Republicans soon see the disaster ahead of them in continuing to alienate a rapidly growing group of voters. But Republicans need not win them all; should they win only 30 to 40 percent, they will (in the short-to-medium run) do well enough to prevail nationally and in statewide elections as well. The problem is not one of demographics. The demographics are what they are. Republicans have a policy crisis on their hands.

Demographics will not change. Policies can.

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