On May 4, 2016, Leah Wright Rigueur, Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor of Public Policy, hosted a conversation with Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy, Center for American Progress; Josiane Martinez, Founder, Archipelago Strategies Group; and Sophia Jordán Wallace, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. The Ash Center sponsored the event as part of the Race and American Politics seminar series. In this post, HKS student Michael Huggins recaps the panel discussion and explores why the Republican Party has resisted comprehensive immigration reform in light of the increased role that Latino voters are playing in the 2016 presidential election.
By Michael Huggins
Donald Trump made immigration the lightening rod issue of the 2016 Presidential Election. Calling undocumented Latinos rapists and criminals, Mr. Trump spewed his rhetoric into the political sphere. Trump’s divisive language is a far-cry from what the Republican Party was hoping to accomplish after the 2012 election in which Mitt Romney received an abysmal 27% of the Latino vote.
Listen to the full discussion on Ash Cast
Back to the 2012 Election
Governor Mitt Romney’s lack of support from Latino voters in the 2012 election illustrated the community’s growing dissatisfaction with the Republican Party. Romney alienated many voters by suggesting that Latinos should self-deport, and by supporting Arizona’s restrictive SB1070 immigration law. On Election Day, Latino support for President Obama reached 71% of Latino voters nationwide.
Romney’s message did not resonate, and his lack of connections to the Latino community showed in the final results of the election. He received a lower percentage of the Latino vote than any Republican Presidential Candidate in the past three elections. Republican President George W. Bush received 44% of the Latino vote in 2004; Republican Presidential Candidate Senator John McCain received 33% of the Latino vote in 2008.
The GOP’s Autopsy Report
After the 2012 election, the Republican Party recognized that it had missed an opportunity to connect with Latino voters, who were quickly becoming an important part of the general electorate. In March 2013, the Republican Party released their 2012 election autopsy, the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report.
Republicans admitted that public perception of their party was at an all-time low. Minorities overwhelmingly assumed that the Republican Party did not like them or want them in the United States. The idea that it did not care for minorities caused great harm to the Republican Party’s chances in the 2012 Presidential Election, and it greatly damaged its future potential for growth in communities of color.
In the report, Republicans admitted that they needed to reach out to the Latino community or else risk losing relevance. In order to reach this constituency, the Republican Party knew it had to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy, Center for American Progress, said the election, even before the GOP autopsy came out, was a “major boost to the immigration reform conversation in Congress including on the house side.” Jawetz also commented that “the day after the election Speaker John Boehner at the time, came out and said the time for a comprehensive solution is upon us.”
According to Jawetz, “Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Charles Krauthammer, I mean everyone was falling over themselves to say how they evolved on this issue.” Jawetz was amazed that Latinos had become the “new issue you could evolve on apparently.” But the so-called Republican evolution on immigration reform did not last.
The Theory of the Missing White Voter
As many Republicans pushed for immigration reform, others began questioning whether an appeal to Latino voters would be necessary. Some 2016 Republican Presidential candidates suggested that the party lost the previous two presidential elections because the party was not conservative enough.
Jawetz described it as the theory of the missing white voter. Republicans sought to “increase white voter count and increase white party preference” to become successful on the national stage. Republicans may have been too scared to embrace an alternative strategy focused on comprehensive immigration reform.
Embracing the theory of the missing white voter provided the Republican Party another path to additional votes without having to embrace policies that would benefit Latino voters and alienate the traditional conservative white voter.
To increase white voter turnout, 2016 Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump has increased his anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric. Instead of embracing warmer policies for the Latino community, Donald Trump has ignored the advice from the 2012 autopsy. Republicans are now making the same mistakes that Governor Romney made in 2012.
President Obama and Deportations
Sophia Wallace, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, commented that “because of the level of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, I think it will not be surprising if we see over 80 percent or more of Latinos voting democratic in this election.” Wallace finds this position very dangerous because it turns the Latino demographic into a capture group or a group that is simplified to one position.
Additionally, Wallace was not convinced that the Democratic Party had the best interests of the Latino community at heart. According to Wallace, “it is not as if having a democratic president has been totally rosy… Deportations are well over 2 million at this point.”
Wallace is right. Since coming into office in 2009, President Obama has deported more than 2.5 million undocumented individuals. His deportation rate is 23% higher than the rate under George W. Bush. Many detained and deported Central American families, some of whom speak neither English nor Spanish, do not have access to legal representation.
Despite the Democratic Party’s less than ideal immigration policy, it looks like Latino voters will opt to vote Democrat in 2016 due to the flagrant racism and xenophobia demonstrated by the Republican Nominee.
Let’s Stop Treating the Latino Community as a Monolith
Politicians need to stop treating the Latino community as a monolith. Josiane Martinez, Founder of Archipelago Strategies Group, said, “I think about the Latino community as a very diverse community that cannot be put into one single bucket. It’s very important for any person who is running for office to understand that we’re not one homogeneous community. We come from many countries, we have different traditions, different cultures, we speak different kinds of Spanish.”
Martinez had a clear message for Republicans who believe comprehensive immigration reform will solve their electoral problems with the Latino community. “Latinos not only care about immigration reform. They care about jobs, they care about access to health, [and] they care about access to good schools.”
Martinez, a Puerto Rican woman, criticized the United States for essentially ignoring Puerto Rico’s recent financial default. She said, “Puerto Rico is heading to a humanitarian crisis right now. The only presidential candidate that said something about the financial situation in Puerto Rico was Bernie Sanders, and it looks like he’s not going to be the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party… If we, the Democratic Party, want to win in 2016, we cannot take the Latino community for granted.”
Forward to the 2016 Election
Donald Trump has upended politics in the 2016 election. Trump’s refusal to change his “build a wall” rhetoric and his unsuccessful overtures with Mexican President Peña Nieto illustrate that the Republican Party’s nominee does not intend to heed the advice of the 2012 autopsy report.
Democrats are counting on Trump’s inflammatory words to drive the diverse Latino community to the polls, but this is not enough. Democrats need to atone for their record on deportation. Both parties have work to do if they want to reach the hearts and minds of Latino voters.
Michael Huggins is an MPP2 at the Harvard Kennedy School, a third-year law student at the University of Washington School of Law, and a Research Assistant for Professor Leah Wright Rigueur and the Ash Center’s Race and American Politics series. His interests include prisoners’ rights, the elimination of mass incarceration, and politics.
The Ash Center’s Race and American Politics Series is a multidisciplinary series of seminars and round-table conversations led by Leah Wright Rigueur. Co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the series features academic, practitioner, and journalistic perspectives from across the nation on the most pressing political and social issues related to race in the United States. Read other posts covering the Race and American Politics seminar series here