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The GOP’s Hispanic problem will grow whether or not Trump’s citizenship warning becomes reality

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the Value Voters Summit on Thursday in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

While CNN was waiting for Donald Trump’s speech on immigration to begin last month, a Trump surrogate explained what he was hoping to hear from the candidate.

“I am not now speaking on behalf of the campaign, I’m speaking as Steve Cortes,” Cortes said on the “AC360” program. “I don’t want citizenship [for undocumented immigrants] and I believe citizenship is off the table. We cannot reward criminality with citizenship. They can never get the right to vote. And by the way, that’s a stark contrast from Hillary Clinton, who I think will give all — many, if not all — of these illegals the right to vote because she thinks that she will earn a voting bloc of 10-million-plus Democratic voters.”

This sentiment is not uncommon among a segment of conservatives: Democrats are advocating for a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally because they want to secure electoral majorities. It’s an argument that Trump himself made on Friday night, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

TRUMP: I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’ll have a whole different Supreme Court structure.
BRODY: Just so I understand, when you say last election, are you referring to what Michele Bachmann was talking about with citizenship? Because Hillary is talking about potentially providing citizenship for many of these illegals. That means Florida and Texas could be gone.
TRUMP: I think this will be the last election if I don’t win. I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it. You’re not going to have one Republican vote. And it’s already a hard number. Already the path is much more difficult for the Republicans. You just have to look at the maps.

Trump adores hyperbole and deploys it wherever possible. Like Cortes, he implies that Hillary Clinton would finagle citizenship for those immigrants with an eye toward building a permanent and growing Democratic majority. Trump offers an image of people crossing the border from Mexico and apparently being handed an American flag, a Clinton lapel pin and a voter registration form.

Clinton does support a path to citizenship, we’ll note — as do 57 percent of registered voters, 84 percent of Clinton supporters and even 28 percent of Trump supporters in the July Post-ABC poll. How that path might be created, given with strong Republican control of the House, is not clear. (Even incremental reform was killed in 2013.)

What Trump’s argument skips over, though, is that even without creating a path to citizenship for people who immigrated illegally, Republican candidates need to do a better job of appealing to a Hispanic citizen population which is projected to be among the fastest growing in the country.

The Census Bureau estimates how the population will grow over the next few decades. The number of Americans overall will increase, and the percentage of the population that is Hispanic will grow more rapidly than the population as a whole. At the same time, the number of people aged 65 and over will also grow — including whites in that age group, a population that currently makes up a lot of the Republican base.

Granting citizenship to everyone currently here because they immigrated illegally would add 11 million new citizens. By 2060, though, the Census Bureau estimates that there will be 62.3 million more Hispanics in the country than there were in 2015 regardless. That’s the future trend that’s a bigger problem for Republicans.

In fact, it’s a problem already, as Trump notes. Hispanics vote less regularly than other groups, turning out for presidential elections at about the rate that white voters do for midterms. That’s a big reason why they’re underrepresented in the electorate.

This is a blue state, a red state and a swing state — for now. Florida's Hispanic population includes a large population of Cuban-American voters, who have tended to be more heavily Republican (though now they’re just about split between the two parties). Texas’s heavily Republican white population usually keeps it pretty red. But in our 50-state poll released this week, Texas was closer than at any point in recent memory — thanks in part to Clinton having a 44-point lead with that group.

All of which is to say that Trump’s point about the immediate forecast for Republican candidates is true even without granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants. The GOP’s advantage with older whites seems sturdy now, and that population will continue to grow as well. But, of course, this is also a population that from 1976 to 1992 mostly voted Democratic.

The white vote shifted. The reason that there was an attempt to advance immigration reform in 2013 at all was that the Republican Party was trying to similarly shift the direction of the Hispanic vote, which has been drifting away from the GOP in recent cycles. Even if Romney had won a majority of the Hispanic vote, he would have lost the election, but that’s because Hispanics were still a relatively small part of the electorate. As they grow as a percentage of those who come out to vote, that gap in support between the right and the left becomes much more significant. Immigration reform was seen as a way to do that outreach.

Donald Trump has bet his election this year to some extent on catalyzing white voters’ fears about the changing face of America, warning Brody that a vote for Trump is needed to keep the rise of the Hispanic population at bay. It’s too late for that in general. Trump may be making the party’s situation worse: There are anecdotal indications that Hispanics are mobilizing to oppose Trump specifically in the states mentioned above.

The Republican Party can, and almost certainly will, adjust to improve its standing with this growing segment of the population, as it was hoping to do before this election cycle. It looks like that adjustment has been postponed for a bit.