As we get closer and closer to the possibility of actually passing immigration reform legislation—this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering amendments to the bill—I want to address a question I’ve heard (sometimes sheepishly, sometimes unabashedly) from some of my friends who align decidedly to the political Right: if we let undocumented immigrants eventually become U.S. citizens, aren’t we dooming the Republican Party’s electoral future?
A disclosure before I address that question: I’m a bit reluctant to write on such an explicitly political question. I should state up front that G92, World Relief (my employer), and every other organization affiliated with G92 is explicitly non-partisan. What follows is my personal analysis, not institutional opinion. Even personally, I don’t claim a political affiliation: I was once an active member of the College Republicans, largely driven my commitment to protecting pre-born life, a conviction I still hold very closely. But I obviously also care a great deal about immigration policy, and I will not vote for someone who seems like he or she wants to deport my undocumented friends. In recent years, I’ve voted for candidates from both parties who were both pro-life and pro-immigration reform; I lament that I so seldom have had an option who aligns with my values on both counts (I firmly belief that those who are pro-life should logically also be pro-immigrant, and vice versa).
The reality is that the vast majority of white evangelical Christians do vote for Republican candidates—nearly 80% preferred Mitt Romney to Barack Obama—so questions of the short- and long-term political effects of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill are probably on even more evangelical minds than those who vocalize it. It may be the reason that some Republican elected officials have argued for legalizing the undocumented, but not allowing them to ever become citizens (and thus potential voters). The logic goes something like this: only about one in four Latino voters voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, so if immigration reform including an eventual path to citizenship were to pass, it would increase significantly the number of eligible Latino voters, and if voting trends stayed static, would thus be an electoral “bonanza for Democrats.”
There are various fatal flaws in that logic, as pollsters have pointed out. First of all, under the Senate’s immigration reform proposal, most undocumented immigrants would not be eligible to apply for citizenship for at least thirteen years… and a lot can change in American politics in thirteen years. Even then, not all will naturalize at their first opportunity, particularly given the heavy fees associated with naturalization: presently, only about one third of the 5.4 million Mexican immigrants who are eligible to naturalize have done so. It’s also incorrect to think that all of the undocumented who legalize are Latino: there are millions of undocumented Asians, Africans, and Europeans among the approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who might qualify for legalization and eventual naturalization.
More importantly, though, the idea that Republicans should oppose a long-term path to citizenship for undocumented Latino immigrants because Latinos might someday vote against Republicans will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course they’re not going to vote for you if you’re the Party that publicly tries to block them from being able to vote. To quote former Republican legislator Dick Army: “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.” But if you win them over with your ideas—I think the Republican Party has a lot of good ideas, many of which would resonate strongly with Latino voters—they might vote for you, particularly if you were the Party that helped them to earn legal status (Congressional Republicans, afraid of primary election punishment stirred up by talk radio hosts and well-organized population control groups, may have lost their only opportunity to win a supermajority of Latino voters by shutting down President Bush’s efforts to pass immigration reform; now they’ll have to at least share credit with Democrats).
Latino voters actually care about a lot of issues; immigration is not usually what Latino voters say is the issue that is most important to them (like just about every other group, that’s the economy). But immigration is a uniquely personal issue to Latino voters, since most know personally someone who is undocumented: if it sounds like you want to deport (or “self-deport”) their grandmother, they’re probably unlikely to vote for you. Much like the issue of abortion for many white evangelicals, immigration is a gateway issue for many Latinos: even if they agree with you on every other issue, they’re wary to vote for a candidate who holds what they view as the wrong position on that particular critical issue.
Another important dynamic that is often overlooked is that Latinos are not a monolith: there are huge differences in voting patterns among Latinos based on country of origin, religious affiliation, geography within the United States, age, and the length of time they have been in the United States, among other factors. Naturalized citizens from Cuba, for example (most of whom have benefited directly or indirectly from the U.S.’s uniquely generous immigration policy for Cubans), or Puerto Ricans (who are all U.S. citizens by birth) are less likely than Mexicans, Dominicans, or South Americans to be concerned with policies toward undocumented immigrants, because there are basically no undocumented Cubans or Puerto Ricans. That could be why Floridian Latinos, a majority of whom are either Cuban or Puerto Rican, were significantly more likely to vote for Republicans than Arizonan Latinos, about 90% of whom are of Mexican origin. It’s important to recognize that undocumented immigrants who could eventually become voting citizens are not just largely Latino: they’re specifically mostly Mexican (about 60% of all undocumented immigrants) and Central American (12%), not Cuban or Puerto Rican. That’s relevant because Mexican and Central Americans also tend to be more socially conservative than other Latinos, and presumably thus more likely to vote for Republican candidates if the immigration issue were taken off the table: 58% of Mexicans and 67% of Central Americans think that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, for example, compared to 45% and 50% of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, respectively (and just 40% of all non-Hispanics).
Perhaps more relevant to this consideration, though, Latino immigrants tend to vote and view the world differently than U.S.-born Latinos. Assimilation happens, and from a conservative Christian perspective, it is not always a good thing. Foreign-born Latino immigrants, for example, are among the most pro-life constituency possible: 65% think that abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances, which by some measures is higher even than white evangelicals; among third-generation Latinos, only 42% share that belief, just a few points higher than among non-Latinos. If white evangelicals would like for there to be more pro-life voters, they should actually want Latino undocumented immigrants to be voting as soon as possible, not waiting thirteen years or more for the privilege: the longer they live in the U.S., the more likely Latinos are to become pro-choice (though still less likely than Caucasians as a whole).
One last critical point: the reality is that Latinos are already voting. (Just ask Mitt Romney). About 13 million Latino U.S. citizens voted in 2012, making up 10% of all voters and a much higher percentage in certain key states within the Electoral College that determines the outcome of presidential elections. The share of U.S. voters who are Latino will likely increase dramatically in the coming years regardless of whether those who are currently undocumented ever become U.S. citizens because of birthrates, not because of immigration: nearly one million U.S.-born Latinos turn eighteen years old each year, each of whom is eligible to vote. As they do so, they will certainly be paying attention to the rhetoric politicians on both sides of the aisle use to talk about immigrants—in many cases, their parents and grandparents.
It’s not my job to give political advice to any party: I think Christians should support just policies regardless of which party is behind them because I think that biblical principles compel us to do so. But my suggestion to those Christians who are particularly concerned with the future of the Republican Party is to worry less about the electoral impact of passing the Senate’s immigration reform bill and more about the impacts of not doing so. The antagonistic attitude toward undocumented immigrants embraced by many Republicans post-Bush-administration has resulted in a quickly declining share of the Latino vote: from 44% for George W. Bush to 31% for John McCain to 27% for Mitt Romney, even while the Latino percentage of the overall vote increases. As Republican columnist Michael Gerson notes, “the embrace of reform would earn Republicans a hearing” with Latino voters, who tend to be socially conservative on many issues. If, however, Republicans decide to kill the current immigration reform proposal—rather than enthusiastically helping it to pass—they invite Democrats to continue with the “Republicans hate Latinos” rhetoric that has worked quite well for them at the polls. “If [the legislation] stalls or is killed off by conservatives,” notes GOP strategist Paul Wilson, “we could take the Hispanic community and turn them into the African-American community, where we get 4% on a good day… We could be a lost party for generations.”
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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