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Immigration reform: Great for the country, not for the GOP

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If it passes — if both sides can avoid stumbling blocks and partisan mistrust — comprehensive immigration reform will be good for the country. The United States has 11 million undocumented immigrants. Bringing them out of the shadows, and providing a path to permanent residence and citizenship, will pay dividends for our economy, our politics, and our social cohesion.

What it won’t do, however, is fix the GOP’s political problems. If Republicans have signed on to immigration reform, it’s out of fear for their future — the demographic wave that reelected President Obama could wash away their electoral fortunes if they don’t adjust and adapt. Indeed, if Florida Senator Marco Rubio — one of the architects of the framework — has had success bringing conservatives to his side, it’s because he has used this fear to push Republicans to reconsider their opposition to comprehensive reform.

The problem for Rubio — and other pro-reform Republicans — is that Latinos need more than a softer line on immigration if they’re going to support GOP candidates at any level of government. Latinos have been a reliable Democratic constituency for more than thirty years — Walter Mondale won 66 percent of Latinos, Michael Dukakis won 70 percent, and on average, Democratic presidential candidates finish with 63.5 percent support from Hispanic voters.

The reason is straightforward: Latinos are more liberal than the median voter. According to the most recent Pew poll on these questions (released last year), 75 percent of Hispanics say they support bigger government with more services, compared to 41 percent of the general population. Fifty-one percent say abortion should be legal, and 59 percent say “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” There just isn’t much appetite among Latinos for the traditional small government approach of the GOP. Comprehensive immigration reform may reduce hostility towards the Republican Party, but it won’t increase vote share.

The GOP’s best hope comes from assimilation. If Latinos follow the path blazed by Irish and Italians — and ethnic identity becomes less salient to political affiliation — then Republicans stand a chance at winning a sizable share of their votes. Already, you can see hints of this in Latino public opinion: First generation Hispanics are the most supportive of “big government” (81 percent to 12 percent), but third generation are the least supportive (58 percent to 36 percent).

But even then, you have a situation where the bulk of younger Latinos are broadly supportive of government. In other words, no matter how you slice it, Latinos will remain a Democratic constituency. Republican outreach might work on the margins, but there’s no reason to expect anything more than that.

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