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Column: The GOP's immigration problem

By Bill Schneider

(Reuters) - Old vaudeville joke:

Man goes to the doctor. Says he has a pain in his arm.

"Have you ever had this problem before?" the doctor says.

"Yes," the man answers.

"Well, you got it again."

Bada-bing.

Now look at the Republicans' immigration problem. Have they had this problem before? Yes. Well, they've got it again. Republicans had an immigration problem nearly 100 years ago. A huge wave of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe - Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Jews - came to this country during the first two decades of the 20th century, before strict national quotas were imposed in 1924. These immigrants were largely Catholic and Jewish.

Republicans were the party of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. The GOP did little to reach out to immigrants, except to try to "Americanize" them and "reform" them (the temperance movement).

Democrats then, as now, were the party of out-groups. The Democratic Party had a long history of accommodating immigrants, going back to the Irish in the 19th century. Municipal jobs (like policemen) were some of the only opportunities available to the Irish, and they were heavily recruited by big-city Democratic political machines that controlled patronage.

The breakthrough came in 1928 when Democrats nominated New York Governor Al Smith for president - the nation's first Roman Catholic presidential nominee. Anti-Catholic prejudice helped to doom Smith's candidacy. But his nomination drew millions of immigrant voters to the Democratic Party.

Then, when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, immigrants became the base of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. They helped make Democrats the nation's majority party for the next 50 years.

Prohibition was a key cultural marker. Most immigrants were "wet." They wanted to end the ban on alcohol. FDR, who was known to enjoy his martinis, promised in the 1932 campaign to end Prohibition. That helped cement the loyalty of the new immigrants to the Democratic Party.

Republicans are making the same mistake again.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney wanted to make immigrants lives in the United States so miserable that they would "self-deport". Romney's harsh policies toward illegal immigrants caused Republicans to lose the Latino vote last year by nearly three to one, the worst showing for Republicans since 1996. Latino support for President Barack Obama (71 percent, up from 67 percent in 2008) delivered key battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada to the Democrats.

Conservative pundit Rich Lowry wrote shortly after the election, "Getting killed three-to-one among Latino voters understandably concentrates the mind." So a group of Republican senators, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, has been working with Democrats to produce a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The plan is likely to pass the Senate soon, possibly with the support of most Republican senators.

Problem solved? Not quite.

For one thing, conservatives in the House of Representatives are determined to kill the reform bill, or at least remove the path to citizenship, just as they did the last time immigration reform came up in 2007. "We've seen this movie before," former Senator Jim DeMint told The New York Times. "We know how this game plays out."

DeMint is something of a godfather to Tea Party conservatives. He now heads the Heritage Foundation and is planning an all-out campaign to kill the path to citizenship, which conservatives consider amnesty for lawbreakers.

Moreover, there is the very real possibility that immigration reform could kill Rubio's prospects for winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That would add insult to injury for Latino voters.

Suppose the measure passes Congress. Would that solve Republicans' problems with Latino voters? Not really.

Latinos may find the new law too punitive. It would not allow any path to citizenship until the borders are absolutely secure. It would impose a serious fine in order to refute the charge of amnesty. It would require that illegal immigrants wait at least 13 years and undergo at least two background checks before becoming eligible for citizenship. What's not tough enough for conservatives may be too tough for Latinos.

Even if the new law passes and Latinos accept it as the best they can get, that may not end Republicans' problems with Latino voters. Conservatives like to think Latinos are Tea Party voters with visa problems. They're not.

Latinos who self-described as Democrats outnumbered Republicans by five to one, in a recent Pew Hispanic Center's 2012 National Survey of Latinos. Both their interests and their values draw them to the Democratic Party.

Their interests draw them to the Democrats because many Latinos are relatively low income, have large families and depend on government services like public schools and health care. They come to this country familiar with trade unions and are not reluctant to join them. They do not hate government - a defining issue for Republicans.

In the 2011 Pew Latino survey, 75 percent of Latinos said they favored a bigger government providing more services over a smaller government with fewer services. Only 41 percent of the general public felt that way.

Many Latinos retain an identity as an out-group and a minority even after they achieve success in the United States. Support for Obama was lower among higher-income Latino voters last year. But he still carried them by 20 points.

Look at Asian-Americans, many of whom are successful and high-income. They voted as strongly Democratic as Latinos did last year.

What about values? Many Republicans believe their conservative views on cultural issues hold appeal for Latinos. Latinos are a bit more anti-abortion than other Americans, according to Pew. In 2011, 51 percent of Latinos said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared with 41 percent of all Americans. In 2012, however, 52 percent of Latinos favored same-sex marriage, up from 31 percent in 2006.

Where do you find Latino Republicans? Mainly two places. One is Cuban-Americans. Like other immigrant groups that have had experience with communism (Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Russians), the first generation of Cuban-Americans votes heavily Republican. But Cuban-Americans are only 3.0 percent of the U.S. Latino population. They're down to one-third of Florida's Latino population.

Moreover, younger Cuban-Americans have been drifting away from their parents' conservatism. Last year, Florida's Cuban-American vote was split between Obama and Romney.

You find the strongest support for Republicans among Latinos who belong to evangelical churches. Pentecostal churches have invested heavily in missionary work among Latinos, in Latin America as well as the United States. Nonetheless, the Pew Center reports that evangelicals accounted for just 16 percent of Latino voters last year. And they supported Obama over Romney, 50 to 39 percent.

On most issues, cultural as well as economic, Latinos are in line with Democrats. Which raises an even bigger dilemma for Republicans. If they pass a bill giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, they may be enfranchising a whole new generation of Democrats. Just like the early 20th century immigrants.

On immigration reform, Republicans may be damned if they do and damned if they don't.

(Bill Schneider is a Reuters column but his opinions are his own.)

(Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.)

(Bill Schneider)

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