If immigration reform dies, Latinos will likely blame GOP bigotry

The Senate has voted to officially move to debate on immigration reform, but that’s no guarantee of success. There’s still a real chance the bill will die in the Upper Chamber, and that’s before it would go before the House of Representatives and a Republican caucus that’s deeply hostile to either reform, President Obama, or both.

If right-wing Republicans were to kill comprehensive immigration reform, that would make it the second time in six years they have successfully done so. Democrats argue that this would be a disaster for the GOP. This morning, The Hill quotes several who say as much.

“I don’t anticipate that they’re going to block immigration reform. Let’s hope that they don’t,” declared Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, a state where Latino population growth has exploded, giving Democrats a decisive advantage in statewide elections. A Democratic strategist warns: “Voting against this bill is a disaster for the Republican Party…They need to be reminded there are sound policy reasons to vote for it but also significant political reasons as well.”

This sounds like false concern, and to a certain extent, it is. Democrats would be happy to watch the Republican Party oppose immigration reform, giving them a campaign issue for next year’s midterm elections. It’s hard to argue that Republicans won’t suffer a short-term cost for opposing immigration reform, arguments from some House Republicans notwithstanding.

That’s because if there’s anything that drives Latino distrust of the Republican Party, it’s the view that Republicans oppose immigration reform out of anti-Hispanic bigotry. If that sounds unfair, look back to the GOP presidential primary, where Mitt Romney won applause for his promise to force “self-deportation” through draconian, Arizona-style immigration laws. Likewise, Texas Governor Rick Perry saw his popularity drop — sparking his long, slow implosion — after he voiced support for helping the children of unauthorized immigrants.

Meanwhile, in the current fight for comprehensive immigration reform, more than a few Republican lawmakers have used language that alienates Latino voters. They refer to immigrants as “illegals” and warn that “amnesty” would harm the social fabric of the United States. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation report against immigration reform — co-authored by a former staffer with racist views on Hispanic intelligence — was widely circulated in Latino media as an example of what the community is dealing with in the GOP.

If immigration reform fails, it will fail because of Republican opposition. To many Latino voters, this will confirm their view that bigotry—and nothing else—drives GOP hostility to their interests. In which case, Latino voters are certain to move further in the Democratic column. In the short-term, this likely would harm Republican efforts to win the Senate. And in the long-term, it could prove disastrous, as Latinos form a political identity centered on disgust with what they see as GOP bigotry.

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

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