Latinos needed to win

There’s no question the president’s decision to reignite the immigration reform debate carries significant political risks for both parties heading into the 2012 elections. Time and again, both parties have broken promises, unable to clear the ideological hurdles posed by opposition from the far right, despite increasing support from the general public as well as faith, law enforcement and business communities. The arguments have not changed much since the 2005-2006 debate, and the ugly rhetoric has intensified as the GOP refocused on measures, like SB 1070 in Arizona, now making their way through state legislatures. 

What is different this time is the increased political strength of the Hispanic community. As Democrats learned (better late than never) in the 2010 elections, neither party should take the Hispanic vote for granted. As the largest and fastest-growing minority group in America, the Hispanic vote was critical to Democratic wins in Nevada, Colorado and California; a national House exit poll also showed 60 percent of Latino voters supported Democratic candidates in House races, while 38 percent supported Republican candidates. Similarly, in the 2006 midterms, 69 percent of Latinos voted for Democratic candidates in their congressional district races, while 30 percent supported Republicans, according to the national exit poll.

The president is not expected to announce any new initiatives during his trip to El Paso, Texas. He will likely tout his administration’s record of improvement of enforcement with doubled worksite investigations, a 70 percent increase in the number of convicted criminals deported, reduced backlogs of applications and an increased presence along the southwest border. By doing so, the president is taking the GOP mantras of “order at the border” and “border first” off the table.

So while the president risks losing critical support and credibility among Latino voters if he is seen as raising expectations and ultimately unable to deliver, the overall risk to the Republican Party and its presidential hopefuls is much greater.

Until there is a nominee, the hopefuls have no hope of trying to control the divisive immigration rhetoric from congressional Republicans, which could contribute to a loss in the general election. Efforts to narrow the definition of what it is to be an American with measures that take away our birthright of citizenship, or suggestions from legislators like Virgil Peck in Kansas to hunt illegal immigrants like the hog population, don’t help the party’s reputation as being hostile to minority groups. The presidentials also know that while it is possible to win in gerrymandered congressional districts, you simply cannot win a national election without some support from black, Latino or other groups. As John McCain well knows, being pushed to the right during a primary can have disastrous consequences; he lost the Hispanic vote by a 2-to-1 margin.

House Republicans have tried to use immigration to drive a wedge between the black and Hispanic communities by pushing the flawed message that illegal immigrants are to blame for high unemployment among blacks — while ignoring the fact that these same Republicans vote against job training and affirmative action while supporting tax breaks for the very corporations that ship American jobs overseas.

The president is right to call on the grass roots for support. We should hold the GOP accountable for its rhetoric using the standard set by our Constitution: that all are created equal with inalienable rights — so whether here legally or not, every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, not scapegoated as some kind of  “other.”

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.