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The right’s most prominent think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, has been institutionally mum during the Heritage Foundation meltdown over the latter’s discredited immigration study, although individual AEI scholars have debunked it and publicly made the case for immigration reform.

Now, AEI’s president Arthur Brooks (the most senior of all the conservative think tank heads) argues that many conservatives fighting the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill are really waging a “proxy” war against immigration because they think newly legalized Hispanics will vote Democratic. Brooks is right that it takes about 30 seconds for many anti-immigration-reform pundits to get around to the political angle.

But Brooks raises a cogent rebuttal to those phobic about new Hispanic voters, namely that Hispanic voting turnout (52 percent in 2008 vs. 78 percent for whites) is low and that “[n]on-voting Hispanics are also more likely than the voters to express conservative attitudes, such as agreeing that ‘hard work’ is more important than ‘lucky breaks or help from other people’ in getting ahead.” I would venture a guess that this is especially true of non-native born Hispanics, who, by the very act of immigration, showed an entrepreneurial spirit.

Brooks suggests that conservatives stop trying to prevent Hispanics from becoming voters and instead go after their votes, especially ones currently not voting. The good news is that the right doesn’t have to compete with liberals in the contest to give away free benefits:

First, make it clear that the safety net for the indigent and needy is not the source of our fiscal problems. It is the safety net for everyone else—the able-bodied, the middle class, and corporate cronies—that is driving our country to insolvency. . . .

Second, put education reform in poor communities front and center. Today, students from low-income families are five times as likely to drop out of school as students from high-income families, according to data from the Department of Education. It is a civil-rights scandal that we effectively accept this opportunity-denying status quo. Conservatives must be the warriors for pro-child, pro-parent, pro-innovation and pro-choice education reforms.

Third, . . . [conservatives] should fight every day to get the government out of the way of a healthy culture for vulnerable American families. This means ending tax and welfare incentives that discourage marriage and encourage children out of wedlock, rewarding work over unemployment benefits, and a host of other pro-poor policies. Healthy culture should not be the realm of Puritanism but of Good Samaritanism and smart policy.

If they commit to a long-term agenda to help the vulnerable—whether they are Hispanic or from any other group—conservatives have nothing to fear in the changing face of America. On the contrary, it can be the best of times, politically and morally.

And this gets to the nub of the problem that is pushing women, moderates, young voters and other minorities into the Democrats’ arms. As we saw from the Woman Up project, the GOP cut/repeal/demonize dependency is (surprise!) a turnoff for non-conservatives. That doesn’t mean the GOP has to pledge to grow government. But it does have to explain how its ideas for energy, jobs, health care and education, among others, can help the poor and middle class.

That’s a problem for a lot of doctrinaire conservatives whose mission is to, for example, repeal Obamacare (no replacement offered) and return to a pre-New Deal federal government. The idea of “problem-solving” or — goodness gracious, helping people! — is thought to be inherently unconservative. That’s a cramped and inaccurate view of modern conservatism, and it’s also a political loser. Republicans need to recapture fairness, upward mobility and empathy as their issues or they’ll be a permanent minority party.

The immigration debate, then, is properly seen not just as a debate about immigration but about the sort of conservatism the GOP wants to present. It can be crabby, anti-government hectoring ( who wouldn’t vote for that?), or it can be pragmatic, inventive, welcoming and compassionate. The first is good for fundraising at right-wing outfits and for clicks on blogs and calls to talk radio; the second is the avenue for a sustainable conservative alternative to liberal statism.