The GOP’s Demographic Dare

If the Republican Party supports immigration reform, will Hispanics ever support the GOP?

Sean Hannity attends The Boortz Happy Ending.

If Sean Hannity can change his views on immigration, what does it mean for the GOP?

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for WSB Radio

As a weather vane of popular Republican Party opinion, Sean Hannity is without peer. And it was Hannity, two and a half months ago, who first told Republicans to take a dive on immigration and pass some kind of reform bill.

“We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether,” he said on Nov. 8, two hard days after the re-election of Barack Obama. Not “rid of immigration,” but rid of “the issue” of immigration. The issue had scared 71 percent of Hispanic voters over to the president. “I think you control the border first,” said Hannity. “You create a pathway for those people that are here—you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on.”

That word—“evolved”—is conservative media code for sold out in the hopes of a brunch invite from Arianna Huffington. Ten years earlier, in his airbrushed jeremiad Let Freedom Ring (not on Kindle, but available for $0.01 before shipping), Hannity condemned the liberals who “spuriously contend that opposing illegal immigration means opposing all immigration.” He printed the numbers of year-2000 immigrants from Iran and “Afghanistan, then controlled by the Taliban,” to make a point of some kind.

Hannity’s agita about immigrants was part terror-panic, part culture-panic. He wanted Republicans to win elections, and immigration made it harder. That could be proven by two sets of numbers. In 1980, when he defeated Jimmy Carter and destroyed the Democratic Party’s national coalition, Ronald Reagan won the white vote by 20 points. In 2012, when famed car-elevator enthusiast Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, he also won the white vote. He won it by 20 points. But in 32 years, the Hispanic share of the electorate quintupled from 2 percent to 10 percent.

The reason, as any demographics-obsessed conservative could tell you, was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Passed by a Democratic House, signed by Reagan, it legalized 2.8 million mostly-Hispanic border-crossers. The new Americans brought their families up from Mexico. They had kids. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s Hispanic birthrate rose from 3.2 children per woman in 1987 to 4.4 in 1991. And 21 years later, Reagan’s own California had become a Democratic landslide state. John McCain’s Arizona gave Democrats five of nine available House seats. Sen. Jeff Flake only barely won his 2012 race, because 18 percent of voters were Hispanic, and they went for the Democrat by 46 points.

If they’re going to pass any kind of legalization plan, Republicans have to answer two questions they’ve been putting off. Are they willing to add millions of potential Hispanic voters? And if they are—if they are willing to pass some McCain-Rubio-Schumer bill—can they win these people over?

This week, the most prominent Republicans are the ones saying yes. “Regardless of the political benefits to one party or another,” said Sen. Flake in a statement, “moving ahead on immigration reform is good policy.” He’s a member of the Senate “Group of Eight,” (I prefer “Octogang” but it hasn’t caught on) and he can envision a near future where Hispanic voters don’t see Republican and immediately think “show me your papers” or “Joe Arpaio.” If that happens, they can win them again. Win enough of them, anyway.

“I’ve heard a lot of conservatives say, ‘Hispanics are pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and they should be Republicans,’ ” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime pro-reform conduit between business groups and Republicans. “That’s good. But you can’t go to someone’s house, knock on the door, and say: ‘I want to talk to you about all the things we agree on. While we talk, you won’t mind if Igor here grabs your grandmother, who’s 87 years old and has lived here forever, and drags her across the border 1,000 miles away? Oh, and we’ll grab your friends from school and drag them out, too, because we have such a great time together.’ If you remove the threat of self-deportation, it becomes a completely different conversation.”

But how do you get there? Since Sunday night, when the Octogang’s deal leaked to Politico, we haven’t heard much from the demography-is-destiny Republicans. They believe, for cultural reasons, that Hispanic immigrants are natural Democratic voters. There is a theory of “makers” and “takers,” and no matter how many calluses they get picking lettuce, the new arrivals go into column two.

The most honest Republican member of Congress’ demographic group is Rep. Lou Barletta. He can trace his success to the mid-2000s immigration wars. He ran Hazleton, Pa., and pushed through the Illegal Immigration Relief Act.* It was all enforcement—fines on landlords who leased to illegal immigrants and denial of licenses to business that employed them. In 2010, he won a seat in Congress. In 2011, it was gerrymandered to protect him.

“Anyone who believes that they’re going to win over the Latino vote is grossly mistaken,” Barletta told Colby Itkowitz, Washington reporter for an Allentown paper. “The majority that are here illegally are low-skilled or may not even have a high school diploma. The Republican Party is not going to compete over who can give more social programs out. They will become Democrats because of the social programs they’ll depend on.”

In 2006 and 2007, the Barlettas of the GOP combined this argument with two bogeymen: wan enforcement and a new surge of immigrants. Neither of those fears retains their old power. Border fencing, deportations, and border agents are all at or above the levels promised during the Bush era’s failed immigration bills. And the Mexican economy simply isn’t weak enough to inspire the old pace of border-crossings, something the president obliquely bragged about in his Tuesday immigration speech.

That leaves Republicans with the demographic dare. And like Hannity, their opinion leaders just aren’t really sure about the risks, not like they were before 2012. Last week, before the Octogang’s framework came out, Sen. Marco Rubio called into Mark Levin’s radio show. Levin, a conservative attorney who sees tyranny behind every White House rose bush, was brought into the radio industry by Hannity. Before he talked to Rubio, he swore that the GOP’s immigration position had “nothing to do” with their defeat. Post-Rubio, he had been healed. “We have de facto amnesty right now,” said Levin, quoting Rubio’s spin. “When he said it, it set a light bulb off. Maybe I am a little slow.”

On Tuesday, before Obama’s speech, Rubio repeated the trick. The cynicism was rising, because the president was about to speak—to promise his own bill if the Octogang failed—and Republicans like Flake warned that Obama could “poison the well.” But Limbaugh went easy, too. Instead of assuming that the new immigrants were lazy, natural takers, he asked Rubio if they were more industrious, more American. “Are conservatives stuck in the past about misjudging why immigrants are drawn to America today?”

“The folks I interact with,” said Rubio, “when they get to this country and they open their own business, they see the cost of government firsthand.”

For a couple of minutes, on-air, two Republicans who wanted the party to win again agreed that they could convert the new arrivals. “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Limbaugh said. “You are recognizing reality.”

Correction, Jan. 30, 2013: This article originally misspelled the town name of Hazleton. (Return to the corrected sentence.)