An Immigration Debate Based On Reality
Campaigning for president last year included the opportunity to participate in a number of memorable televised debates.
As I think about what the Republican Party must do to rebuild, a particular set of exchanges from these debates stick out as a lesson.
We, the candidates, were asked repeatedly what we would do with the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States, “many of whom have been in this country a long time.”
I always laid out two critical pieces of any immigration solution: the urgent need to secure the border, and the creation of a guest worker program.
But it was also important to answer the real question with intellectual honesty.
There are 12 million people in this country who have come here illegally. It wasn’t our choice for this to happen, but their presence is a fact. So we must decide: Are we really going to deport all 12 million people, many of whom have deep ties here?
My position was that people who have come here recently, have no ties to this country, should go home. But the-size-fits-all deportation of 12 million people, without regard to their circumstances, would constitute a level of inhumanity the American people would never accept.
As I said in a Florida debate, “We as a nation are not going to walk into some family...and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out.”
In response to this call for discretion and humanity, while at the same time enforcing the law, several other candidates -- including our party’s eventual nominee -- had repeatedly accused me of amnesty.
At an earlier debate Governor Romney replied to my suggestion by saying, in essence, “Amnesty is a magnet...people respond to incentives. And if you can become a permanent resident of the United States by coming here illegally, you'll do so.”
The Democratic National Committee actually cut an attack ad against Romney based on this very exchange, which you can see here.
It is difficult to understand how someone running for President of the United States, a country with more than 50 million Hispanic citizens, could fail to acknowledge that the American people should not take grandmothers who have been here 25 years, have deep family and community ties -- and forcibly expel them.
When asked in a Florida debate if, in light of his criticism, his own immigration proposal would round up 12 million people and deport them, he replied, “Well, the answer is self-deportation.”
And we wonder why the Republican Party achieved historically low levels of support among Latinos in 2012?
As we study what happened last year, we’ve discovered the data support the intuition that this rhetoric can kill the Republican Party among Latinos.
An August 2011 Univision National Poll in collaboration with the Mellman Group and the Tarrance Group found that only about a third of likely Hispanic voters had an unfavorable impression of Governor Romney. Roughly a fifth had a favorable impression, a quarter weren’t sure, and the rest had never heard of him.
The poll showed that 41 percent of likely Hispanic voters were still persuadable -- they were weak Obama supporters, or they were undecided or favored Romney. There was opportunity for Republicans.
An election eve poll of Latino voters found that a year later, only 14 percent thought Governor Romney “truly cares about Latinos.” 56 percent said he “does not care about Latinos,” and 18 percent said he is “hostile toward Latinos.” 66 percent, meanwhile, said President Obama “truly cares.”
When asked about Governor Romney’s statements on immigration, including specifically his claim that illegal immigrants would “self-deport,” 57 percent of Latino voters said it made them less enthusiastic about him. Only 7 percent said it made them more enthusiastic, meaning on that issue he was underwater by 50 points.
He went on to be defeated by wide margins among Latino voters.
In fact, if he had won even 36 percent of them, Governor Romney would be President Romney today.
I do not write this to single out Mitt Romney. He worked hard for a long time and his campaign was up against skilled opponents. But the sad fact is that the Republican Party for too long has failed to communicate to Latino Americans a positive vision for the future. Our slide among Asian Americans has been in the works for a generation.
I write this because as the current immigration debate heats up it is critical for us to recognize that words and attitudes really matter. Understanding what people hear matters. We may not mean to say what people hear we say. After decades in politics this is a lesson I have learned the hard way.
As a party, we simply cannot continue with immigration rhetoric that in 2012 became catastrophic -- in large part because it was not grounded in reality.
Senator Marco Rubio has done an important service cutting through some of the baloney with the observation that what we have now is de facto amnesty. It is reality. The 12 million people are here, living and working. Many of them are bound together by the web of human relations -- family, friends, neighbors -- and the American people will not support mass deportation.
That is the reality -- the starting point of the debate about what we, as a country, should do.
This does not mean we as Republicans should give up on our principles, or on the priority of securing the border.
It means we must recognize, as I tried to do in that primary debate, that politics is always an intersection of principles and people.
A party that appears to ignore people won’t get the chance to make the case for its principles -- any of them.
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