March 29, 2013

Alaska Rep. Don Young is only one lawmaker, but he perfectly captures the Republican dilemma on immigration. To recap, in an interview with a public radio station in his home state, Young used a racial slur to refer to immigrant workers. “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50–60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said to radio station KRBD. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine,” Young added.

Obviously, Young has apologized for the remark, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. But this episode underscores a larger truth: Republicans are more likely to hold negative attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants. A recent poll tells the story; according to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Republicans see immigrants as a “burden” because they take “jobs and health care.”

At the same time, a new report from GOP polling group Resurgent Republic finds support for immigration reform — and a pathway to citizenship — among Republican primary voters. As long as it comes with stringent requirements, the most conservative Republicans are willing to give unauthorized immigrants a chance at citizenship. Between this and the broad public’s support for reform, Republicans have every reason to move forward with a bill.

Yet Republicans remain hamstrung by the fact that officials just seem uninterested in genuine minority outreach. That’s what Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins found when he talked to GOP rank-and-file operatives and activists:

One former RNC field staffer, who is Hispanic, described a culture of cynicism among his predominantly white colleagues when it came to minority outreach. He said that in his office, whenever they were notified of a new Republican outreach effort, they would pass around a Beanie Baby — which they had dubbed the “pander bear” — and make fun of the “tokenism.” “Any kind of racially specific campaign activity was often treated with skepticism by white staffers,” he said.

In addition to finding new policies and new messengers (and doing as much as possible to avoid Don Young-style outbursts), Republicans will have to make minority outreach the norm — and not the exception — in their party. In other words, when it comes to changing the party’s relationship with Latino voters (and other nonwhites), passing immigration reform is just the beginning.

The GOP’s Latino problem goes beyond immigration reform. It has as much to do with the party’s culture as it does with its positions on immigration. Rep. Young’s remarks may have been unintentionally insensitive, but the fact he didn’t even know the remark was insensitive itself underscores the problem. If the party were serious about making Latinos feel at home — and didn’t see outreach as mere “tokenism” — such outbursts would be far less likely.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.