A stars-aligning moment to pass immigration reform


The Republicans are still sorting out why they lost the election so decisively — was Mitt Romney too moderate, was the party too extremist? — but every Republican strategist recognizes that they cannot hope to ever win again if they remain hostile to Latinos, who constitute the fastest-growing large voting bloc in American politics.  The vote count is not yet final but Romney lost Latinos by something like 45 percentage points — and this, as Republican never tire of pointing out, in a constituency that tends to be religious, socially conservative, with high rates of small business start-ups.  Republicans think the problem is their stance on immigration — when a party hack like Charles Krauthammer is now arguing for amnesty and blowhard Sean Hannity says his views on the issue are ‘evolving’ you can be sure the tides have shifted — and even though I believe they’re wrong about that and their hostility runs much deeper I agree that immigration reform is a necessary first step toward the GOP’s rehabilitation.  More important: they believe it, now, for the first time in decades.  Obama could get landmark immigration reform passed — a goal that has eluded generations of Democratic politicians — and not even have to spend much political capital to do it because the Republicans need it more badly than he does.  This moment has never come before and even though the realignment seems likely to be permanent, in fact you never know so it needs to be seized, and quickly.

The Republicans have always been the principal obstacle to effective immigration reform, preferring to frame it solely as a law and order issue that can be addressed with more vigilant policing of the borders.  Every Democrat recognizes that the borders need to be policed: for drugs and weapons as much as people.  But it has always seemed the height of absurdity than in a world of antagonists to American interests we, as a nation, would object to opening up a path to citizenship to so many who want it, embrace our values, and have demonstrated their commitment to work and build their lives on American soil.  Ostensibly, the objection has been that they came here illegally so this cannot be ‘rewarded’ with an amnesty.  It is worth pointing out that the only reason that the 19th century European immigrants we now venerate were not illegal is because restrictive immigration laws were not then in place for them to breach, though their reasons for coming were the same as for Latinos (and many, many others) today: for opportunity, to make a better life for their children, to have the social freedom to reinvent themselves as something more than was possible in the constrained futures of home.  So what makes them illegal today is that the law changed, which is an argument for reform — because the law can be changed again to bring it more in line with reality and our national interests — rather than against it.  Now is the time to get it done.

In fact, though, I don’t believe that the Republican party’s past hostility to immigration reform was ever principally a law and order issue, though that was the least contentious way for them to frame it.  The GOP is an incredibly white party: 89% of Romney voters were white versus 55% for Obama in an electorate that is 72% white and falling fast.  Nixon built the Republican party’s southern strategy on appealing to whites who felt threatened by the black civil rights movement; Reagan doubled down on that by telling white working-class voters (who came to be called Reagan Democrats) that they were as victimized as any black person, if not more so because they worked hard and played by the rules while black ‘welfare queens’ supposedly milked the system.  So in the last decade or two, when the GOP objected to the widespread use of Spanish and pushed to make English the official language of the US, they were making a cultural argument to this same white base and not a legal one since American citizens, too, speak Spanish and countless other languages as well.  ‘Illegal immigrant’ became a code word for the cultural displacement that the GOP’s fearful, bunkered, ethnocentric white base felt as a result of the increase in Latinos in the US.

This is the sentiment underlying Bill O’Reilly’s now famous claim once the Obama re-election was becoming apparent that “It’s not a traditional America anymore…The white establishment is now a minority.”  In the video at the top of this post, O’Reilly is talking about “half the country wants stuff,” a takers-and-makers division (see welfare queens, above) that echoes Romney’s 47%, but the “changing demographics” with which he begins the comment is a dog-whistle call that it is Latinos who are increasing the share of takers.  That is the white fear, right there.  In the 1970s, they feared that black people, if given the full exercise of their civil rights, were going to take their stuff; now they fear Latinos.  This ‘stuff’ partly reflects a material fear and is one reason among many for the GOP’s pathological hostility to taxes, which they see as the mechanism by which the government takes from the makers and gives to the takers.  But it is not only that: they prefer their America white because it is familiar and they are sure of their place in it.  If everyone is speaking Spanish, these fearful whites can never be sure what they’re saying.  Put another way, Latinos constitute a kind of  cultural competition in American life akin to economic competition in free markets and the Republicans have been on the side of the monopolists.  Bad call, but one that they can rectify.  This goes way beyond immigration reform, of course, and I look forward to seeing how the Republican party wrestles with this issue in the years ahead.  But they aren’t going to win the White House on white fear ever again and the easiest and most immediate thing they can do to try to rebuild is to support immigration reform.  Obama should give them the chance as soon as humanly possible.


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