Listen to Hispanic voters on reforms to immigration law

In a recent editorial in another Capitol-focused publication, my colleague Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) sought — as he has in the past — to pressure Congress to resist immigration reform. This time, he added an interesting prediction: that even without immigration reform, Latino Republican candidates will deliver the Latino vote in 2012.

Rep. Smith’s interest in the Latino electorate is timely. As he rightly put it, “Our nation’s Hispanic population is growing, and it’s growing fast.” He believes that population will be swayed by a handful of prominent Hispanic Republicans.

He understands the Census. Unfortunately, he has a limited understanding of the Latino electorate. Let’s look at his case, and where it falls apart.

According to Rep. Smith, “exit polls reported by CNN reveal that 38 percent of Hispanic voters cast ballots for House Republican candidates in 2010, significantly more than in 2006 (30 percent) and 2008 (29 percent).” He never mentioned that The Wall Street Journal had Hispanics voting Republican at 32 percent and The New York Times at 34 percent. 

As Rep. Smith wrote, “A November 2009 Zogby poll found that 82 percent of likely Hispanic voters strongly or somewhat support reducing the illegal immigrant population over time by enforcing existing immigration laws.” 

Forget the 2009 dateline on that poll, and forget Zogby’s troubled history of push-polling for conservative causes. What do today’s numbers really say? A poll of Hispanic voters released June 9 by Latino Decisions and impreMedia found the following:

Seventy-four percent support “stopping the deportation of any undocumented immigrant who has not committed a crime, and is married to a U.S. citizen or legal resident.”

Sixty-six percent support “stopping the deportation of any undocumented immigrant high school and college age youth who has not committed any crime.”

Sixty percent support “stopping the deportation of any parent who has not committed a crime and has children under the age of 18 living in the U.S.”

The poll also found that 65 percent of Hispanic voters trust President Obama and Democrats “to make the right decisions when it comes to immigration policy” compared to 19 percent who said the same of Republicans. There’s a warning in this poll for Democrats, too: Forty-three percent said congressional Democrats are “ignoring or avoiding” immigration reform. That’s a call for action, not ignoring the issue or turning to Rep. Smith’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

These numbers track with what we’ve seen previously. A June 2010 Pew Hispanic Center poll found that 83 percent of Hispanics favor providing a way for undocumented immigrants to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have a job. The same poll also found that 56 percent of Republicans support such an approach. Rep. Smith, far from speaking for Hispanic voters, isn’t even speaking for his own party. 

Instead of cherry-picking his data, Rep. Smith should listen to Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich — Republicans who worry that voices like Rep. Smith’s will alienate a key voting bloc. One of Gingrich’s first interviews after his presidential announcement was with Univision’s widely respected news anchor, Jorge Ramos. Gingrich acknowledged the importance of winning the Latino vote and expressed support for an amended version of the DREAM Act to grant undocumented minors an earned path to legal residence.

Most importantly, Gingrich talked about the need for comprehensive reform that would provide a path to legality for many of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Republicans, including my colleague, Rep. Smith, should embrace Gingrich’s analysis of the Latino electorate. If they don’t, it’s only a matter of time before demographics seal the GOP’s fate.

Rep. Smith claimed in his op-ed that the 2010 electoral victories of Republican Hispanics in states with large and growing populations were an indicator of Republicans’ general appeal to Hispanics. But many of those candidates, who ran on anti-immigrant platforms, performed poorly with Latino voters. Neither of the Latino Republicans elected to governorships in 2010 — Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez — came close to winning a majority of the Latino vote. 

Hispanics constitute a rapidly growing demographic. We’re seeing an increase of 1.5 million to 2 million new Hispanic registered voters every two years. If Republicans want to elect a president, or remain a viable party, in the near future, they must leave behind their diehard anti-immigrant rhetoric.

 Grijalva co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.