As Republican leaders nationwide rethink their positions on immigration to bring Latino voters into the party, they might look to California, where years of hard-line immigration rhetoric put the GOP on the losing side of the state’s fastest-growing group of voters.
California Republicans have launched efforts to reverse the trend, and national GOP leaders concerned about the party’s prospects are paying attention.
Latinos make up 16 percent of the U.S. population and 38 percent of California’s – double where the state was in 1980. No Republican has held statewide office in California since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The party is also vastly outnumbered in the state legislature and in the congressional delegation.
“We will never win a statewide election in California until we solve this problem – period,” said Ron Nehring, a former state Republican chairman who has called for a new approach to immigration. “We should demonstrate we are the party for immigration reform.”
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But those efforts are complicated by a vocal wing of immigration hardliners, disagreement over whether Congress should allow a path to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally, and by statements by some Republicans that do little to change the perception that the party is anti-immigrant.
“What candidates and elected officials say is important, because it defines the party brand,” Nehring said.
When Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, in radio interview last month, referred to the migrant workers on his family’s California farm decades ago as “wetbacks,” party leaders immediately condemned the statement.
“Don Young’s dumb comments reinforce every negative stereotype about Republicans,” Nehring said on Twitter.
But critics say it’s not enough for Republicans to simply change how they talk about immigration.
“It’s based on the assumption that outreach is the issue,” said Jonathan Fox, chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It may be the content of their message.”
Some Republicans haven’t moved too far from their recent positions on immigration, even as their districts change.
Last year, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from the San Diego area, introduced a bill that would punish states that issued driver’s licenses to people who were in the country illegally. Earlier, he proposed deporting the U.S.-born children of immigrants who lacked legal status. His district is 30 percent Latino.
Others are embracing a different approach.
California state Sen. Anthony Cannella was one of three Republicans to vote for a bill that would grant driver’s licenses to young undocumented immigrants who are awarded work permits – a measure that passed and that Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed.
While Nehring said that driver’s licenses, a guest-worker program and other ideas have broad support, whether to give people here illegally a path to citizenship has emerged as a sticking point. Including it in a comprehensive immigration overhaul would be a poison pill for some staunch opponents of immigration reform, and excluding it would be a deal-breaker for some supporters as well.
“We already have a path to citizenship, it is a path that has been followed by millions of legal immigrants who have obeyed our laws,” Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, of northern California, posted last month on his Facebook page. “Now we’re told we need to allow up to 20 million illegal aliens to cut in line in front of them. That’s just not acceptable.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found that while 57 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship, only 35 percent of Republicans do.
Other recent polls show a near majority of Republicans support it. A Field poll in February found that 90 percent of Californians supported letting people who entered the country illegally apply for citizenship as long as they have a job, pay back taxes and learn English.
The Washington Post-ABC poll also showed that more than 72 percent of Americans support more visas for highly skilled workers, including 71 percent of Republicans. It found similar numbers for stricter border controls; 80 percent of Americans support them, including 76 percent of Democrats.
“The compromise is to do nothing,” Nehring said. “Republicans, while we have a House majority, should do something.”
Immigration is a defining issue for many Latino voters. A post-election poll by Latino Decisions, a political research group, found that 60 percent of Latino voters nationwide know someone who is living in the country illegally.
Laura Vazquez, immigration legislative analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, said immigration is the prism through which Latino voters view candidates – and a measure of how the candidate views the Latino community. In 2010, they heard Republican Meg Whitman talk tough on immigration in her campaign for California governor. In 2012, they heard it again from Republican Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign. Both lost.
“Latino voters associate that language with them, regardless of their own immigration status,” Vazquez said.
Nehring and other GOP leaders know they have a lot of work to do. President Barack Obama won re-election with 51 percent of the vote, but with 69 percent support from Latinos. In California, Obama beat Romney by more than 20 percentage points. Republicans lost four California House races in 2012 with candidates who talked tough on immigration.
“Being anti-immigrant has made Republicans a minority party in California,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a group that supports a path to citizenship. “If they don’t change ways, it will make the GOP a minority party nationally.”