Jeb Bush, a Republican, is co-chair of the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference and a former governor of Florida.
In the 15 states that are likely to decide who controls the White House and the Senate in 2013, Hispanic voters will represent the margin of victory.
For the Republican Party, the stakes could not be greater. Just eight years after the party’s successful effort to woo Hispanic voters in 2004, this community — the fastest-growing group in the United States, according to census data — has drifted away.
Although Democrats hold the edge, Republicans have an opportunity. We also have a record of winning Hispanic voters in certain statewide and national elections. Here are four suggestions on how Republican candidates can regain momentum with the most powerful swing voters.
First, we need to recognize this is not a monochromatic community but, rather, a deeply diverse one. Hispanics in this country include Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and many others. Some came here 50 years ago to make a better life; others came last year. Some have lots of education, some have none. The traditional Republican emphasis on the importance of the individual has never been more relevant.
Nevertheless, there are common features and dreams across this community. Hispanics understand, either personally or through close family members, what it means to come here as an immigrant. They know how hard it is to function without a full working knowledge of English. They have often felt the sting of prejudice and the threats of gang violence. They tire of the stereotypes built by the media and some politicians. Like all voters, Hispanics respond to candidates who show respect and understanding for their experiences.
Second, we should echo the aspirations of these voters. The American immigrant experience is the most aspirational story ever told. Immigrants left all that was familiar to them to come here and make a better life for their families. That they believe this is possible only in America is the best expression of American exceptionalism I know. And on this score, Republicans have a winning message and record as the party of the entrepreneur. We are the party of the family business, and the family business is the economic heart of Hispanic communities.
Third, we should press for an overhaul of our education system. Republicans have the field to themselves on this issue. Teachers unions and education bureaucrats have blocked Democrats from serious reform — it will happen only with Republican political leadership. But we have to move beyond simplistic plans to “get rid of the Department of Education” and focus on substantive, broad-based reform that includes school choice, robust accountability for underperforming schools and the elimination of social promotion, in which kids are passed along without mastering grade-level skills. Such improvements, it was noted in 2009, plus efforts to embrace digital learning, helped Hispanic students in Florida lead the nation among their peers. And Hispanic voters, who often feel their children are trapped in failing schools, notice.
Finally, we need to think of immigration reform as an economic issue, not just a border security issue. Numerous polls show that Hispanics agree with Republicans on the necessity of a secure border and enforceable and fair immigration laws to reduce illegal immigration and strengthen legal immigration.
Hispanics recognize that Democrats have failed to deliver on immigration reform, having chosen to spend their political capital on other priorities.
Republicans should reengage on this issue and reframe it. Start by recognizing that new Americans strengthen our economy. We need more people to come to this country, ready to work and to contribute their creativity to our economy. U.S. immigration policies should reflect that principle. Just as Republicans believe in free trade of goods, we should support the freer flow of human talent.
We need to connect immigration to other pro-growth policies, so that new Americans can apply their talents here and succeed. The United States needs an economy that is vibrant and dynamic, open to the contributions of new entrants. We have to reduce regulations across our economy, whenever they impede economic dynamism and flexibility in the labor market. We need secure energy supplies, radical tax reform and a reduced footprint of power of the state.
Immigration reform requires economic reforms. We must be able to assure new Americans the opportunity to succeed and contribute their talents.
And when they come, as surely they will, we must welcome them, no matter whether they speak Spanish or Creole or Portuguese. When we hear foreign languages in the streets of America, that is a validation of the Republican vision to create a place where people want to come and make their lives. Hispanics here speak or are learning English — not French, Chinese or Hindi. There is a lesson in that, and Republicans should be the ones to champion it.