What Both Parties Don’t Get About Hispanics

Incentives for a deal on immigration reform are powerful, if unspoken.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (C), R-OH and National Security Advisor Susan Rice listen as US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on Syria during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House in Washington, DC, September 3, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
May 28, 2014, 6:17 a.m.

The pres­sures against im­mig­ra­tion re­form are so ob­vi­ous they’re al­most cliché. Most Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians fear re­volt from am­nesty-loath­ing con­ser­vat­ives. Many Demo­crats see stra­tegic ad­vant­age in keep­ing the wedge is­sue alive.

What our lead­ers don’t see (or re­fused to ac­know­ledge) are the false as­sump­tions built in­to their po­s­i­tions, and the power­ful in­cent­ives for both sides to com­prom­ise. They should read this re­port from Third Way, a Demo­crat think-tank with enough in­tel­lec­tu­al hon­esty to ana­lyze data ir­re­spect­ive of its party bi­as.

Des­pite their rising polit­ic­al power, both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats have ten­ded to mis­rep­res­ent His­pan­ic Amer­ica.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans view His­pan­ics as un­doc­u­mented, poor, and un­will­ing to as­sim­il­ate. But the data shows that His­pan­ics are over­whelm­ingly cit­izens and leg­al res­id­ents and have broadly ad­op­ted Amer­ic­an val­ues. Many Demo­crats em­phas­ize im­mig­ra­tion as the sole is­sue of im­port­ance to the com­munity and as­sume His­pan­ics are lib­er­als. But His­pan­ics are con­cerned with is­sues bey­ond im­mig­ra­tion and hold com­plex — and of­ten con­ser­vat­ive views — on a num­ber of is­sues.

The re­port’s au­thor, demo­graph­er Michelle Diggles, warned her own party, “His­pan­ics are not born lib­er­al Demo­crats.” While Pres­id­ent Obama won the His­pan­ic vote in 2012 by 44 points, a ma­jor­ity of His­pan­ics iden­ti­fied at in­de­pend­ents and only 32 per­cent as Demo­crats.

“And His­pan­ics ex­press luke­warm feel­ings about the Demo­crat­ic Party. Only 27 per­cent think the Demo­crat­ic Party cares a lot about the is­sues and con­cerns of His­pan­ics,” she wrote. “This and their lack of iden­ti­fic­a­tion as self-de­scribed Demo­crats sug­gest that His­pan­ic at­tach­ment to the Demo­crat­ic Party is shal­low rather than deep.”

There’s more to worry Demo­crats in the re­port, in­clud­ing a “po­ten­tial flash­point” over re­li­gion. “Demo­crats can­not be com­pla­cent and should work to deep­en their con­nec­tions with the His­pan­ic com­munity bey­ond im­mig­ra­tion,” she wrote. “His­pan­ics are strivers — en­tre­pren­eurs and small busi­ness own­ers. And Demo­crats have not been able to at­tract as much sup­port from small busi­ness own­ers as the rest of the pop­u­la­tion.”

The trends, of course, are far worse for Re­pub­lic­ans. Diggles spells them out. About 17 per­cent of His­pan­ics are un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, ac­cord­ing to her ana­lys­is, a num­ber that has fallen sharply in re­cent years.  “Des­pite the lower levels of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants among the His­pan­ic com­munity, the anti-His­pan­ic rhet­or­ic un­leashed by Re­pub­lic­ans when they speak of im­mig­ra­tion im­pacts the com­munity writ large,” Diggles wrote. “Fur­ther, many His­pan­ics born in the U.S. care deeply about im­mig­ra­tion re­form, re­gard­less of their cit­izen­ship.”

She cites Pew Re­search Cen­ter polling that sug­gests the Demo­crat­ic ad­vant­age in party iden­ti­fic­a­tion has grown from 22 points in 2006 to 48 points in 2012.

The Third Way re­port had star­ted gath­er­ing dust on my shelf when House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor re­minded me this week of just how close the GOP has come to ir­re­voc­ably ali­en­at­ing a strong ma­jor­ity of His­pan­ics, seal­ing its fu­ture as a minor­ity party. Faced with a primary chal­lenge from the tea party, Can­tor’s cam­paign sent out a mail­er that claimed he is “stop­ping the Obama-Re­id plan to give il­leg­al ali­ens am­nesty.”

There is talk in Wash­ing­ton that the GOP House lead­er­ship may be will­ing to bend on im­mig­ra­tion but only after can­did­ates like Can­tor weath­er primary chal­lenges. White House ad­viser Valer­ie Jar­rett sug­ges­ted as much when she said, “We have a com­mit­ment from Speak­er Boehner, who’s very frus­trated with his caucus.” Boehner quickly denied her claim. What happened?

Either there was a com­mit­ment and Jar­rett didn’t un­der­stand Boehner’s polit­ic­al pre­dic­a­ment, which amounts to polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice at the White House, or there wasn’t deal, and Jar­rett was ly­ing. Pick your pois­on. Obama’s team doesn’t fully un­der­stand how Con­gress and com­prom­ise works.

On the oth­er hand, the pres­id­ent has ordered a delay of a de­port­a­tion en­force­ment re­view that was cer­tain to an­ger House Re­pub­lic­ans and doom any hopes of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. Risk­ing back­lash from lib­er­al back­ers, Obama gave the GOP polit­ic­al space to com­prom­ise. Lib­er­al colum­nist Greg Sar­gent of the Wash­ing­ton Post re­minded me that this is ex­actly the sort of lead­er­ship I ac­cuse Obama of lack­ing. He’s got a point.

But the proof is in the do­ing. Nobody gets cred­it for a com­prom­ise that isn’t reached, a prob­lem that isn’t fixed. I don’t have much faith that lead­ers of either party can put our coun­try ahead of their polit­ics, but Diggles’ re­port con­cludes with a sen­tence aimed at the hard­est hearts. “If Re­pub­lic­ans aban­don their ste­reo­types or Demo­crats don’t do the ne­ces­sary work to keep His­pan­ic voters in their column,” she wrote, “we could eas­ily see this com­munity re­turn­ing to the ranks of swing voters.”

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