Republicans have now sent three clear signals to Hispanic voters: Proposition 187 in California, attempting to deny illegal immigrants health care and public education; the immigration debate of 2006, dominated by strident Republican opponents of reform; and now the Arizona immigration law. According to a 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 49 percent of Hispanics said that Democrats had more concern for people of their background; 7 percent believed this was true of Republicans. Since the Arizona controversy, this gap can only have grown larger. In a matter of months, Hispanic voters in Arizona have gone from being among the most pro-GOP in the nation to being among the most hostile.
Immigration issues are emotional and complex. But this must be recognized for what it is: political suicide. Consider that Hispanics now make up 40 percent of the K-12 students in Arizona, 44 percent in Texas, 47 percent in California, 54 percent in New Mexico. Whatever temporary gains Republicans might make feeding resentment of this demographic shift, the party identified with that resentment will eventually be voted into singularity. In a matter of decades, the Republican Party could cease to be a national party.
Even describing this reality invites scorn from those who regard immigration as a matter of principle instead of politics. But this represents a deep misunderstanding of politics itself. In America, political ideals are carried by parties. Republicans who are pro-business and pro-life, support a strong national defense and oppose deficit spending depend on one another to achieve influence. Each of these convictions alienates someone -- pro-choice voters, economic liberals, pacifists. But Republican activists who alienate not an issue-group but an influential, growing ethnic group are a threat to every other constituency. The vocal faction of anti-immigrant Republicans is not merely part of a coalition; it will eventually make it impossible for anyone else in that coalition to succeed at the national level.
The good news for Republicans is that Hispanics tend to be entrepreneurial and socially conservative. While the general image of the GOP held by Hispanics is poor, individual Republican candidates can make significant inroads. In presidential elections, Hispanic support can swing widely. In 1996, Bill Clinton got 72 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2004, John Kerry's support was in the 50s. And Republicans do not need to win a majority of the Latino vote to compete nationally, just a competitive minority of that vote.
But even this modest goal is impossible if Hispanic voters feel targeted rather than courted.