Most Americans -- including most Hispanics -- want control of our borders. They don't want people -- or worse, drugs -- flowing into the country through porous borders. But it is possible to run tough-on-illegal-immigration campaigns without resorting to demonizing all illegal immigrants as criminals and welfare cheats. Republican Governor-elect Susana Martinez managed to do so to win in New Mexico, as did Governor-elect Sandoval, and Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio. Although all three are Hispanics, their positions, not their ethnicity, mattered most for how they fared.
Martinez promised to repeal New Mexico's current law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and ran on her record as a border-county prosecutor who targeted the Mexican drug cartels. But she did not feel it necessary to accuse illegal aliens of stealing jobs or run ads like Angle's in which all the Hispanics pictured were tattooed thugs.
Only 8 percent of voters Tuesday said that illegal immigration was the most important issue in the campaign, according to exit polls. And even in Arizona, where anti-illegal immigration sentiment is highest in the nation, two GOP challengers who made the issue the centerpiece of their campaigns went down to defeat.
The lesson for the Republicans should be to tamp down the rhetoric and get serious about fixing the immigration mess. If Republicans want to win the presidency in 2012, they're going to need to carry heavily Hispanic states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, which went for Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans now have a new slew of Hispanic office holders who could help lead the way by advocating market-based legal immigration reform coupled with strong border enforcement.
But the GOP may instead follow the siren call of anti-immigrant groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, whose director has touted the election results as producing at least 50 more votes against increasing legal immigration. If the Republican Party becomes the anti- legal immigration party, it can write off any hope of ever winning back Hispanic voters -- and that could mean writing off its chances to recapture the White House in 2012.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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