David Laska on Illegal Immigration: Recalibration, not Capitulation

Much of the post-election chatter has focused on the Republicans’ problems with Hispanic voters, and with good reason. In 2004, George W. Bush won 45 percent of the Hispanic vote, and it seemed that the GOP was well on its way to winning the hearts, minds and votes of the fastest growing demographic in America.

Fast forward to 2012: Mitt Romney pulled just 27 percent of Hispanics. How did the Republican Party fall so fast? And how can we get back to where we were just eight years ago?

The issue of illegal immigration, both in substance and style, has been a loser for Republicans. The party doesn’t need to change its platform, but its delivery is long overdue for a recalibration.

Hispanics are not single-issue voters, nor are they a monolithic voting block. But Democrats and their allies in the press have used the issue as a foil to paint Republicans as xenophobic and anti-immigrant, if not outright racist.

Take for example the JournoList scandal, in which several hundred leftward-leaning bloggers and political reporters privately conspired to paint Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s agenda as racially motivated, until the group was outed in mid 2010.

Even President Obama himself warned Hispanics not to “sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re going to punish our enemies’…” in 2010.

It was disingenuous demagoguery, but it stuck, despite the fact that, during the Republican primary debates, every major candidate expressed their support for legal immigration and none called for mass deportations.

Now, some voices in the Republican Party are calling for unconditional amnesty for some undocumented immigrants as an olive branch to Hispanic voters. It’s a shortsighted strategy that ignores a fundamental but rarely uttered truth about illegal immigration: illegal immigration isn’t just bad for the country, it’s bad for the immigrant.

Undocumented immigrants cannot earn minimum wage. They pay sales tax but receive little to no benefit in the form of government services. They wonder if a trip to the hospital or a call to the police will lead to their deportation.

Many children of undocumented immigrants, though U.S. citizens, are still hobbled by serious developmental and educational deficits resulting from their parents’ lives in the shadows. A 2011 Harvard University study found that by the time the children of undocumented immigrants reached age 2, they showed significantly lower levels of language and cognitive development than the children of legal immigrants and native-born parents.

President Obama’s executive order that paved the way for amnesty without border security will incentivize further illegal immigration. The President willfully grew his voter base at the expense of the well-being of millions of current and future undocumented immigrants. It was a cold political calculation masked as an act of goodwill.

Oddly enough, this leaves an opening for the Republicans on the Democrats’ left flank: call for border security and a streamlined immigration system in order to alleviate the great human tragedy of illegal immigration. Then, and only then, we grant a path to normalization for those undocumented immigrants who have attended college or served in the military.

A recalibration of the Republicans’ message on illegal immigration will infuse some compassion into our brand, and expose the Democrats’ stance as popular politics but poor policy.

David Laska is Communications Director of the New York State Republican Party.

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