President Obama executed a political masterstroke on Friday morning. He announced that undocumented immigrants brought here as children would be allowed to stay indefinitely if they complete high school or serve in the military. This is essentially the promise of the DREAM Act that Obama has urged Congress to pass and Republicans have blocked. The DREAM Act would offer the security of permanent residency, whereas Obama can only offer renewable work visas without legislation. (The executive branch can decide which undocumented immigrants to deport and which not to, but it cannot unilaterally create a path to citizenship.)
The DREAM Act is wildly popular among Latinos. The GOP has alienated most Latino voters by harboring an intensely anti-immigration movement on its right wing. Mitt Romney has been shameless about pandering to that element: he won anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo’s endorsement in 2008. In the recent Republican primaries he attacked staunch conservatives such as Newt Gingrich from the right on immigration, complaining that Gingrich admitted he had no intention of deporting grandmothers who have been here for over twenty-five years.
But now Romney is trying to win over Latinos. He recently announced the formation of a Latino outreach team and began sending out press releases in Spanish.
Obama’s move, however, leaves him with an impossible task: satisfying both Latinos and the Republican base on a new issue that divides the two groups. Romney is already on record as opposing the DREAM Act. To appease the right wing, which is expressing outrage over Obama’s supposedly unconstitutional power grab, he must oppose this move as well.
Here’s a typical missive on the conservative Red State blog, cross-posted from the Madison Project, which raises money for conservative candidates: “King Barack Hussein Kardashian Obama thinks that he gets to invent laws where they don’t exists and disregard the ones that are already on the books.… This is not the time for Republicans to reward Obama for violating the law with their own version of amnesty.”
But for Romney to say he would like to deport law-abiding residents brought here as children risks alienating Latinos and moderates. So Romney is taking the same tack as relatively pro-immigration conservative pundits such as The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis: opposing Obama’s move on the grounds that is politically motivated and an inadequate substitute for the immigration reform Obama promised but has not delivered.
This was Romney’s initial statement: “I believe the status of young people who come here through no fault of their own is an important matter to be considered and should be solved on a long-term basis, so they know what their future would be in this country. I think the action that the president took today makes it more difficult to reach that long-term solution because an executive order is, of course, just a short-term matter—it can be reversed by subsequent presidents.”
This raises an obvious and important question: Would Romney reverse the order? It is bizarre, dishonest and tautological to say that Obama’s move is inadequate because future presidents could reverse it. The next president will either be Obama, who won’t reverse it, or Romney himself, who does not have to if he does not want to.
CBS’s Bob Schieffer tried to nail Romney down on this point over the weekend, and Romney refused to say. If Romney thinks these young people should be allowed to stay in the United States, as he suggests he does, then he should say he would keep the order in place until a law is passed.
John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, snarked on Twitter, “No question, if you want a lot of illegals to vote for you, Obama’s move today is brilliant. Oh, wait.” But, of course, the move is popular with many Americans who can vote. It also put Romney in an awkward position with no way out.
The rising vote share of Latinos, a progressive and Democratic-leaning constituency, is posing problems for Republicans all over the country, not just on the presidential campaign.
In Texas, Republicans are simultaneously vying to court Latino voters while conspiring to screw them out of fair political representation.
In the runoff for the Republican senatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has challenged former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz (who is Cuban-American) to a Spanish language debate. It’s a clever move, because Dewhurst is actually fluent in Spanish and Cruz is not. It does risk alienating the xenophobes in the GOP, but it also could make Cruz look weak for refusing the offer. “Unfortunately, for the Texas Republican primary voters, hearing Spanish is like hearing nails on a chalkboard, so it might not sit well with them,” says one veteran Texas Democratic activist. “But in the eyes of a Texas Republican, if there is one thing worse than a guy speaking ‘Mexican,’ it’s a coward.”
At the same time, however, the Republican state legislature has passed a redistricting plan carefully designed to minimize Latino political power. Texas gained four new House seats after the 2010 Census, and that is almost entirely thanks to the population growth among Latinos and African-Americans. But the Congressional districts have been carefully gerrymandered to disperse Latinos and African-Americans in rural districts dominated by white Republicans, or to lump them together to compete against each other. According to Michael Li, an election law lawyer based in Dallas who follows redistricting, Latinos account for 66 percent of Texas’ population gain over the last decade and African-Americans about 23 percent. If the white population growth had been all the growth that occurred in Texas, it would have gained no seats. And yet under the new map, Latinos, African-Americans and Democrats will gain a net of zero seats. (The map is currently in federal court, and could be thrown out, because it may violate the Voting Rights Act.)
Meanwhile, the Latino community, which is supposed to be a bastion of social conservatism, is showing signs of moving leftward. For example, in El Paso, Mary Gonzales, 28, recently won the Democratic primary for an overwhelmingly Latino State House of Representatives district. When Gonzales wins in November, as she is certain to since there is no Republican candidate in her district, she will become the first openly gay woman in the Texas legislature.
Republicans, meanwhile, are stuck trying to win a higher and higher proportion of older white voters to compensate for their unpopularity among non-whites. That creates a vicious cycle whereby they must stake out more intolerant positions to ensure the support of people who fear the future that people like Mary Gonzales represent. That, in turn, makes Republicans even more unpopular among other constituents and even more dependent on older whites for votes. Romney may be able to walk the tightrope enough to win this election, but it is not a winning strategy for his party in the future.