A couple of years from now, Republicans may look to this month and wonder if this is when they became, in national terms, a permanent minority party.
The day after the 2012 election, one analyst after another reached the same conclusion: the GOP could never again win the White House without making significant inroads with the fastest-growing bloc of voters in the country: Hispanics. The Republican anti-immigrant brand had come home to roost and this, combined with a failure to offer any agenda that could appeal to other minorities, women and young voters, had left them without pathways to victory on the national stage. Everyone from Speaker John Boehner (R-ohio) to Mitt Romney, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Reince Priebus agreed it was time for the party to rebrand and that rebranding would begin with immigration reform.
And yet, a year and a half later, Republicans have reversed course. They are bounding full-speed toward assured irrelevance, sped up by the arithmetic of our changing demographics and what can only be described as an inability to once and for all give up on their five-decade project to win elections by mobilizing racial fears amongst working class white voters.
Last week was a telling test case. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke in positive and humane terms about people who are in the United States illegally looking for better lives for their families. “Yes, they broke the law. But it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family,” he said.
It’s a remarkable statement from a Republican in the Tea Party era and an extraordinarily beautiful, simple point about immigrants that even most Democrats have not articulated. These families – like scores of our ancestors did for generations – come to our country out of love. Treatment of our immigrant communities as human beings with families, as real people with stories and dreams, has come too slowly to American political discourse, but it’s here.
What followed Bush’s remark was an all-too-predictable backlash. The insulting, xenophobic, hate-filled response from the right has pushed the GOP’s very real existential dilemma back into the spotlight. For this single statement, Republicans have shot back accusations that Bush is “trivializing” the act of breaking the law, sternly reminding Bush this is “a nation of laws” and that “rule of law matters.” People of color in America understand what too many on the right mean by this language. Richard Nixon used the phrase “law and order” as his code for mobilizing and capturing the racial backlash against the civil rights movement and the war on poverty.
Here is what these political attackers are forgetting: we no longer live in an America that sees immigrants as less-than human. Groups like the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) have been fighting for the past 15 years to elevate the voices of immigrants. Through the work of our organizations and our partners, we have helped move the discussion about immigrants from the shadows and into the light.
Key to winning this debate has been the families – millions of brave women and men who face treacherous circumstances every day in order to provide the best for their families. They work hard, often exploited at work without protection. They take their kids to school, always afraid of being pulled over and deported on the spot. They thrive and contribute to our culture and our economy. They make it, the American way, against impossible odds. If that’s not an act of love, I don’t know what is.
Because of the unfathomable courage of these families and the welcoming nature of our country, there has been a marked shift in American perception of immigrants. They are now seen by a majority of Americans for what they really are: mothers, fathers and children, often fleeing desperate situations, who have come to the United States to contribute both to their families and to our country.
But when words of love and courage are beat down by a political party that is stuck in overdrive as a forum for the ugliest, most race-fearing elements left from our nation’s past, people notice. News of the backlash spreads, and families pay attention. Attacks on the very identity of the American immigrant are seared in the collective memories of the voters they’ve insulted.
The good news is that we and Jeb Bush can win this argument. The far-right, racially-charged immigration restrictionists at the base of the Republican Party are dwindling and significantly outnumbered. They are losing – but not quite enough of them understand that yet. More Republicans and Democrats need to join Jeb Bush on the right side of history and begin to see and speak of undocumented Americans as human beings caught in a very real and very solvable problem. The humanity of immigrants is winning this debate, and a pathway to citizenship for our fellow Americans is inevitable; the only question is whether the GOP will survive this march toward justice and progress.
Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change Action.