Immigration and the GOP “Gateway” Problem with Hispanics

While the big story on Sunday’s TV talk shows was the mounting controversy about what Gov. Chris Christie knew and when he knew it, there was also discussion about the stay of play in immigration reform. There were some interesting comments on the debate within Republican ranks over whether to push for some form of reform legislation this year.

“The Republicans have a major problem here,” said Matthew Dowd, who as an aide to President George W. Bush was part of a major push for comprehensive reform.

On ABC’s “This Week” program, Dowd added, “The problem for Republicans is that immigration reform is a gateway issue. It basically says you have to do something about that in order for those voters to listen to you on all those other issues.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Democratic strategist Bob Shrum condemned the proposal for legal status that stops short of an assured path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Such a move, he said, “would essentially create apartheid in America, where millions or tens of millions of people would work, pay taxes, would have no right as citizens.”

That invocation of a system that shocked the conscience of much of the world drew a mild rebuke from guest host Major Garrett. “Apartheid is an incendiary word,” said Garrett, making the distinction between the situations of black South Africans then and illegal immigrants now. “These are not native-born Americans.”

Shrum defended his analogy. He pointed to the discrimination that for years prevented blacks in the South from exercising their right to vote. Then he asked, “Are we now going to create a system in which millions of people living in this country, primarily Hispanics, are unable to vote, but they can work and they can pay taxes?”

Shrum’s observation ignored the fact that millions of green card holders – aka lawful permanent residents – choose not to become citizens. They are content to live here, work here, and raise their families here, without becoming fully integrated into the nation’s civic life.

Some who make that choice are simply apolitical. Others find the fees too expensive. Others told me when I was a reporter in Arizona that they did not want to be “agringado” – turned into gringos. They felt that would amount to turning their backs on their native land.

On Sunday, Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal editorial board rebutted Shrum with a rhetorical question that inadvertently highlighted the linguistic awkwardness of the situation: “Does that mean everyone on a green card in this country right now is a second-class citizen?”

Many Latinos are understandably angry at what they see as the outright hostility of Republican politicians. They regard the ostentatiously aggressive policies and harsh rhetoric of people like Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and U.S. Rep Steve King of Iowa as proof of nativist bigotry.

I think if Republicans showed a measure of compassion, if they demonstrated respect for Latino culture and recognition of the many contributions of Latino immigrants, they would create the moral and political space to appeal to the concerns of many Latinos. For many Latinos understand from personal experience that unrestricted immigration – whether legal or illegal – undermines everyone’s opportunity for the American dream.

A Mexican-American drywall foreman named Gerardo Jimenez expressed that sentiment several years ago. Jimenez, who received amnesty through the 1986 reform legislation, told me that the relentless influx of illegal immigrants was undermining the prospects of earlier immigrants. “Alguien tiene que poner orden,” he said. “Someone needs to establish order” in the flow of immigrant workers.

That concern is nothing new.

In 1966, Professor George I. Sanchez, a civil rights activist, made this observation: “Time and time again, just as we have been on the verge of cutting our bicultural problems to manageable proportions, uncontrolled mass migrations from Mexico have erased the gains and accentuated the cultural indigestion.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Peter Skerry, now a professor at Boston College, noted, “Studies consistently report that immigrants compete for jobs with more recently settled Mexican-Americans.” Then Skerry added a crucial point, which the Republicans need to understand if they’re going to deal with the gateway problem. Skerry wrote this of Mexican-Americans:

Their uneasiness about job competition is usually accompanied by empathy for the newcomers, who are, after all, relatives and neighbors. Given their history of easy movement back and forth across the border, Mexican-Americans also tend not to regard the current immigrant wave as an “invasion.”

Republicans need to show some empathy. They should also restrain their rhetoric – out of concern for the feelings of Latinos and for their own electoral prospects.

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