Republicans are finally worried that their failure to attract Hispanic voters in this year's election spells trouble -- perhaps for decades. But they're not sure what to do about it. Moderates in the party are pushing for more efforts at "inclusion," which usually means elevating a few Hispanics to symbolic but visible positions in national, state, and local politics. But with no Cabinet positions to hand out and so few prominent Hispanic elected officials to promote within their ranks, Republicans clearly won't gain much leverage with this strategy.
Some conservative Republicans, on the other hand, are either in denial or think they can control the problem by limiting the growth in the Hispanic immigrant population. (Just ask the 14 out of 16 hard-line, anti-immigration Republicans who lost their seats this time around to pro-comprehensive reform Democrats how well this worked at the polls.) But even if hard-liners were successful at stopping illegal immigration and dramatically reducing the number of Hispanic immigrants admitted legally, it wouldn't solve the simple demographic fact that U.S.-born Hispanics have higher fertility rates than whites or blacks. Hispanics will become a larger share of the population for the foreseeable future, though intermarriage rates will likely diminish their ethnic identification over time.
Still other Republicans hope that the party's message of self-reliance, low taxes, defense of life and support for traditional marriage will win over entrepreneurial and religious Hispanics. But while I think these positions have tremendous appeal and are the bedrock on which to build support in the Hispanic community, they're not enough.
The first thing Republicans have to overcome is a growing belief among Hispanics that they aren't welcome in the party -- or in America for that matter. According to a recent survey by America's Voice -- a liberal, pro-immigrant group -- two-thirds of Hispanics think that discrimination against them has increased in the last two years because of the tone of the immigration debate. Republicans have to deal with the consequences.
Here's a radical suggestion -- but one that wouldn't compromise Republican or conservative principles. Why doesn't the Republican Party launch an aggressive Welcome to America Campaign? The idea would be to set up a network of volunteers to reach out to Hispanic immigrants, and especially their American-born children, to teach English, American history and civics. Estimates are that four in 10 Hispanic voters in this year's election were naturalized citizens -- and 75 percent of them cast their votes for President-elect Barack Obama.
But what if those new Americans had been helped to become U.S. citizens by local volunteers from the Federation of Republican Women, the Republican Men's Club or the local Republican central committee? What if Republican volunteers approached employers in their area and offered to set up English classes during lunch breaks or after work for immigrant workers, or distributed DVDs and videos with language and civics instruction? This type of volunteerism has been ceded to Democrat-leaning groups over the years. Is it any wonder that when these new citizens register to vote, their instinct is to support the party that they've come to know firsthand?
I can already hear objections from both immigrant advocates and critics. The immigration hard-liners will complain that any such efforts might end up helping people who are illegally in the United States, while immigrant advocates will warn that Republican volunteers could become a Trojan Horse to turn in those same illegal immigrants.
To the hard-liners I would say that unless you're part of the tiny minority that is willing to round up and deport every single illegal immigrant, along with their U.S. citizen offspring, wouldn't it be better for everyone if these people at least spoke English? What's more, we're not talking about government dollars going to this effort, but individual volunteerism.
To the advocates, I'd argue that getting to know individuals who are members of groups you think you despise is often the best antidote to prejudice. Besides which it's unlikely that the men and women who volunteer for this effort will be members of the local Minuteman chapter.
Republicans have nothing to lose by taking this approach -- and much to gain including the goodwill of those they've helped and their extended family members. But, it's not just the GOP that would become winners. Assimilating America's newest immigrants is a big challenge -- and all of us need to be part of the effort if we want America to thrive.