Republican immigration position likely to alienate Latinos, Democrats say

Thousands have rallied in Arizona this week to protest the state's uniquely strict new law cracking down on illegal immigrants.
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

President Obama and his political aides privately acknowledge that the government's decision to sue Arizona over its new immigration law is helping to fuel an anti-immigration fervor that could benefit some Republicans in elections this fall.

But White House officials have concluded that, over the long term, the Republicans' get-tough message is a major political miscalculation. They predict it will ultimately alienate millions of Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.

West Wing strategists argue that the president's call for legislation that acknowledges the role of immigrants and goes beyond punishing undocumented workers will help cement a permanent political relationship between Democrats and Hispanics -- much as civil rights and voting rights legislation did for the party and African Americans in the 1960s.

As a result, although the president is unlikely to press for comprehensive immigration reform this year, he has urged his allies to keep up the pressure on Republican lawmakers.

"Look: The Republicans, if you do the math, cannot be successful as a national party if they continue to alienate Latinos," said one Democratic strategist familiar with White House thinking on the issue.

Another top Democrat who has advised the administration on immigration added: "If the Republicans continue on the same course they are on, the politics of immigration are potentially devastating to their party."

Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about White House strategy.

Last month, Obama invited a small group of influential Latino activists to the White House and reassured them that he is committed to reform. But to succeed, he said, they had to stop their public complaining about how slowly he was moving and instead direct their fire at Republicans.

The activists came away from their presidential audience still convinced that he could be doing more to push the issue. But their discussion with Obama -- and a lengthier one with adviser Valerie Jarrett after he left the room -- made one thing clear to them: The White House plans to use the immigration debate to punish the GOP and aggressively seek the Latino vote in 2012.

"The president fundamentally understands that this is about the longer term," said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, who attended the White House meeting. "This issue goes deeper than any list of needs. Your answer on this question will reveal to us whether you do or don't understand our community."

Advisers to the president say his long-standing position on immigration is not motivated by presidential politics. But in a few years, they predict, the Latino population will surge in "red" states, where residents have traditionally voted for Republicans in presidential contests. States such as Texas, which has been a GOP stronghold for a generation, could become permanently "purple" tossups if Republicans do not repair their image.

"The one thing that has the potential to grab a large part of that constituency is to actually show them respect for being here, being here legally, being part of the community," said a senior Democratic Party official. "The fight over immigration is a proxy for tolerance. It's a proxy for diversity."

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