One thing was missed in Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary: Conservatives embraced a pro-amnesty candidate without batting an eyelash. This should come as a wake-up call to those who've been pushing a hard-line anti-illegal immigrant position in the Republican Party.
Granted, Gingrich didn't spend a lot of time discussing his position, which favors amnesty for those illegal immigrants who have been here for a long time, have deep family and community ties, and have paid taxes and avoided breaking other laws. But that's the point. He didn't have to spend a lot of time defending his position because so few conservatives cared.
Now Gingrich seems poised to win another Southern primary: Florida. The latest polls show him within a few percentage points of beating Mitt Romney again (and at least one poll shows him up by 5 points). Whether or not a Gingrich win is a good thing for Republican prospects in the fall, it could help lay the groundwork for future Republican victories by defusing an issue that is guaranteed to alienate the fastest-growing segment of the voting population.
Like other voters, most Hispanics care a lot more about jobs than they do about immigration. Still, they are turned off by candidates who portray illegal immigrants as criminal invaders who want a handout from U.S. taxpayers. Republicans have damaged their ability to woo an important constituency by insisting on a punitive approach to illegal immigration. In this election alone, it could cost Republicans key states critical to winning the presidency: Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
Worse, in future elections, the perceived anti-Hispanic bias in the GOP could deprive the party of its edge in presidential elections in Texas and Arizona, where Hispanics already account for about a third of the population. Gringrich might keep that from happening.
Unlike Gov. Rick Perry, who was unable to articulate his own pro-immigrant stance, Gingrich is ideally suited to move the GOP toward a more politically viable -- not to mention humane -- immigration policy. Polls show that most Americans are opposed to deporting the 11 million illegal immigrants who already reside in the U.S. And Mitt Romney's position, which is indistinguishable from the radical anti-immigrant groups', is patently wrong; Romney believes that if we make life difficult enough on these people they will "self-deport." Nothing could further from the truth.
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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