How the GOP Should Talk (and Not Talk) to Latinos About Immigration

When making the case that Republicans have cooked their goose with Latino voters because of how they talk about immigration, it helps to be specific.

I had the chance to do just that recently when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on immigration at the renowned Lincoln Club of Orange County in Southern California. Panelists were free to discuss whatever facet of the debate we wanted to focus on, and I titled my remarks: “How the GOP Can Talk About Immigration Without Pissing off Latino Voters.”

But first, I explained to the audience why I was even making the effort. I’m not a Republican, I said, but nor am I Democrat. I’m just someone who likes a good, close game and I’m angry, frustrated, and bored with the fact that -- when it comes to winning over Latino voters -- the scoreboard always reads: “Democrats, 100; Republicans, 0.” That’s not good for anyone -- not Democrats, Republicans, or Latinos.

It’s also not good to take this issue lightly, I told them. You can’t continue to alienate 16 percent of the U.S. population -- an estimated 10 million voters representing 8 percent of the U.S. electorate -- and expect to survive for long.

I broke the presentation into two pieces. In the first, I spelled out six things that Republicans are doing wrong when talking about immigration. In the second, I gave them six things they could do right that might help make the GOP brand less toxic among Latinos.

What they’re doing wrong:

1) They approach the issue dishonestly by trying to convince the rest of us that they have no problem with legal immigration, that race and ethnicity don’t have anything to do with the debate, that Americans would gladly do jobs that illegal immigrants are doing, that Mexico is to blame for not providing sufficient opportunities for its own people, and other tall tales;

2) They divide the country by framing the debate in terms of “us” vs. “them” and casting themselves as real Americans who love their country more, and care more about the rule of law, than do their opponents and they invariably place Latinos in the “them” camp, which only helps reinforce the idea that all Latinos are foreigners, outsiders, and interlopers;

3) They pander to racists and nativists, by either using divisive and mean-spirited rhetoric or turning a blind eye to those in the party who do and by perpetuating notions of inferiority where immigrants -- especially those from Mexico -- are dismissed, degraded, and demonized as coming up short when compared to the immigrants of old;

4) They propose simple solutions to what is actually a complicated problem, proving that they haven’t thought deep enough about the issue and forgetting the “bumper sticker rule” which holds that any solution to our immigration woes that fits on a bumper sticker -- i.e., “Deport All Illegals” or “Build A Wall” or “Seal the Border -- probably isn’t going to work;

5) They cast illegal immigrants in negative terms, as spongers and takers and cheats who suck resources out of the economy when the truth is that, without an illegal work force, whole industries like agriculture would dry up and blow away and that illegal immigrants contribute as much as they take or more in terms of taxes and increased economic activity;

6) And finally, once they determine that they are, in fact, in a hole with Latino voters, rather than change their tone and improve their policies, they go for a “quick fix” such as proposing that whoever eventually wins the GOP presidential nomination put U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida on the ticket as kind of a silver bullet solution and one-man PR team.

What Republicans could do right instead:

1) They could stop shading the truth and be honest about the nature of the problem and what they’re going to do to fix it, how what they propose would work, and why it is a better alternative to what is currently being suggested by others and just tell the truth about what motivates them to tackle the issue and what concerns them about the present situation;

2) They could resist dwelling on the negative and instead accentuate the positives associated with immigration -- even the illegal kind -- while also acknowledging the contributions that illegal immigrants make to the economy and industries like agriculture by doing jobs that Americans won’t do, paying taxes, and increasing profits for companies that pay taxes;

3) They could acknowledge that simple solutions don’t work and instead offer substantive and complex proposals for dealing with illegal immigration that reflect a deeper understanding of just how complicated the issue can be and which actually stand a chance of working because they don’t oversimplify the challenge;

4) They could stop taking an all or nothing approach to the immigration debate, be more flexible in their demands and more realistic in their expectations, and learn to compromise in ways that give them most of what they want even if they don’t get everything they ask for;

5) They could find their backbone and stand up to the racists, nativists, and xenophobes in their own party and, to do that, they’ll need to first acknowledge that this sort of poison is in this debate and do everything they can to eliminate it by coming down hard on those who put it there;

6) And, finally, they could forget about those quick and easy fixes that don’t accomplish anything (i.e., “Marco Rubio for Vice President”) and concentrate instead on watching their tone, holding their tongue, changing their policies, and improving their ideas in concrete ways so they can approach Latino voters more successfully.

And this is just what I told the group of Republicans at the Lincoln Club in Orange County. Some of my remarks were well received, and other parts weren’t. Some people were ready to hear the message, and others looked like they were ready to kill the messenger. Some stuck around after the panel to meet me and pose for pictures, and others hightailed it out of there.

That kind of mixed reaction is totally understandable. Not everyone in the Republican Party is ready to hear this kind of blunt and tough talk. Well, they had better get ready. Because, unless Republicans kiss and make up with Latinos over immigration -- and fast -- there’s a good chance their party won’t be around much longer.