This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," April 1, 2006, that was edited for clarity.
PAUL GIGOT, HOST: The Republican split over immigration was on full display this week, as the Senate took up the issue amid continuing street protests. But could a hard-line on reform sabotage the party's long-range effort to court the country's fastest growing ethnic group?
Republican pollster and former Bush election strategist Matthew Dowd joins me now from Austin. Matthew, welcome.
MATTHEW DOWD, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Glad to be here, Paul. Thank you.
GIGOT: This year, you hear on Capitol Hill from a lot of Republicans that this is the year to get tough on immigration, build a wall on the border, arrest and deport illegal aliens in the United States if necessary. Is that your reading of the public mood?
DOWD: Well I think the public, one, it's a reading, I think, a part of the public mood, which is that the public wants something done about security. And they want, you know, our borders enforced.
But the public's really of two minds on this. They want a rule of law, border enforcement, but they also want compassion for the, you know, 11 million people that are here, that have families across the border.
So the public is sort of bifurcated. They want compassion on one hand, but they also want border enforcement on the other hand.
GIGOT: Well, that issue of the 11 million illegals already here is the really contentious one on Capitol Hill. Would the public support, do you think, a policy of arresting and deporting them if they don't normalize?
DOWD: I think the public looks at this thing, as I said, in two different ways. I think we need to do a better job on our borders and enforcing the borders.
But I also think they know there's 11 million people here that are working jobs, that are doing a lot of activities that contribute to the economy, and that you just can't throw across the border and make criminals.
I think the only, you know, thing that that may do is just go take undocumented workers and make them undocumented criminals. And I don't know exactly if the public really will support that.
Again, I think they want to deal with our borders, but they know 11 million people are already here and we've got to figure out what to do.
GIGOT: Well, you often hear this word 'amnesty' thrown around. Nobody is in favor of amnesty, because it seems to be giving people who've broken the law a break. But what if a proposal that had illegal immigrants here pay a fine, wait 5, 10 years to be able to apply for citizenship, would that be deemed something like amnesty?
DOWD: Well, I think because America is most of the sons and daughters, most of the people here are sons and daughters, or grandsons and daughters, or great grandsons and daughters of immigrants, and I think if the public sees a process by which people can become citizens, even people that are already here, that may have entered the country originally illegally, the public will support that process, but they got to believe there is a process that they have to go through that you can document people that are here, that they have to go through the paperwork. They have to do all those sorts of things.
But I think once they see that you have to do these sorts of things, and then you then become legal status through that process, the public's going to support that, because most of their grandparents and great grandparents came here and went through a similar situation.
GIGOT: Is there a danger for Republicans this year that they could make a mistake in this debate, either with their rhetoric, or with the final policies that they might pass, similar to the one that Republicans made in California in the mid '90's when Proposition 187 passed, amid a very contentious debate? And it polarized Hispanic voters in particular against Republicans in California, where now the Republican Party in California is a decidedly minority party.
DOWD: The fact that the Latino vote in this country is the fastest the growing demographic of the electorate — it's grown 400 percent in the last 20 years. So this is going to keep happening. It's dynamic, it's growing.
And I think both political parties understand that it's a demographic that is probably one of the most important, you know, who's going to have majority status in this country.
But I think we have a situation where both political parties are in danger of doing only one part of what the American public wants. The Democratic Party seems to be only concerned or seems to be primarily concerned with the compassion part. What do you do with people here in this country and then giving people a route to citizenship.
And many parts of the Republican Party seem only concerned with rule of law and border enforcement. And if each political party decides to pick just one of those things, they're both in danger.
That's why I think you have to look at both. And if one party picks just one, then I think the Latino vote — immigration's not an issue that Latino voters sort of make their ultimate decision on the voting — at the voting place, but it is an issue that opens the door. And once the door is open, then you can talk about education, you can talk about the economy, you can talk about healthcare.
But if immigration is done in such a way that they are just in very much disagreement on, you can't even get to the other issues.
GIGOT: But you hear, Matthew, often, from some conservatives, that every naturalized Hispanic citizen here is going to be a Democratic voter flat-out. That's just the way it is. You're saying that they are, in fact, open to Republican messages.
DOWD: Well, if you take a look at what's happened the last eight years, Bob Dole in 1996 got 22 percent. And then George Bush in the presidential election got 35 percent. And then in 2004, he got 44 percent.
So the idea that it's a Democratic vote — it's going by the wayside if Republicans talk to them.
The other thing that's interesting about Latino votes is — as they rise on the economic ladder, they become much more available to the Republican Party. Just like European immigrants in the early part of the 1900s, they came here, they were Democratic as they rose in the economic ladder and became part of the middle class, owned their homes, owned businesses. They became much more available to the Republican Party. That's the demographic change.
And I think it's very available to Republicans on the ballot, but they have to make sure the door is open, they're in their communities, and they're talking to them. And if they do, there's no question in my mind that the Republicans eventually can't win a majority of Latino vote.
GIGOT: OK, Matthew. Thank you near being with us. Very interesting debate. We'll see how it unfolds.
DOWD: Glad to be here, Paul. Take care.
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