For a vocal minority, immigration is the biggest problem facing this country. They believe we are being “invaded” by hordes of lazy, shiftless foreigners who want to destroy America from within. That is all pure delusion, but politics and fear often evade rational thought. Indeed, some of the most vocal anti-immigrant voices have never had any negative contact with immigrants. Often they are just annoyed that Lowes has Spanish signage or they have to choose a language on their ATM.
The Europeans have similar vocal minorities, convinced that there is a huge danger from those “others” who are strange, different, smell funny and will undermine the core identity and values of society. In Europe this shows itself through strong right wing nationalist parties that can get up to about 20% of the vote (that seems a ceiling for this paranoid world view). In the US we have a two party system, so they have no natural political outlet.
For Republicans this creates a quandry. In 2007 the anti-immigrant crowd rose to defeat a proposal by President Bush to reform immigration and give people here illegally a path to citizenship. Bush’s approach was well thought out, and had political benefits for the GOP. Many Latinos are socially conservative and Republicans felt they had an advantage to win them over to their party – no mean feat given that this is the fastest growing voting demographic. They still may have that advantage in the long run, but for now the extremists are causing Republicans headaches.
For Republicans running in deeply conservative states or in the primaries there is a lot to gain by having a harsh anti-immigrant stance. It stokes the emotions of the nativists, and people vote more on emotion than reason. With the primaries dominated by activists and hard core political junkies, the anti-immigrant vote is magnified and has given Donald Trump command of the GOP field for now.
Once you get to the general election this spells danger. First, there are almost 30 million Latinos eligible to vote in the US, about 12% of the population. That may not sound like much, but it’s the fastest growing voter demographic. This means that even if all illegals were deported you’d still have the ATM’s asking what language to use – even with no new immigrants, this is the fastest growing group of Americans.
In recent elections Latino turnout has been about 50%, though rising. It is conceivable that a strong anti-immigrant stance will increase anger and push the voter turnout up, something that could not only swing the general election but potentially many Congressional districts and Senate races.
Beyond that, in a country strapped with debt and a variety of problems, the cost of a Trump like “deport them all” solution is mind boggling – probably at least $200 billion.
Now, the total undocumented immigrant population is 11 million, 6.5 million of those Mexican. That number is lower than it was about eight years ago, as enforcement along with fewer job opportunities meant many people returned and fewer arrived. Indeed, the number seems to have stabilized. So the idea that they are pouring across the border in some kind of invasion is simply dead wrong.
There is no way this country will pay $200 billion to solve a problem that is already being solved. Moreover some of the solutions – end birthright citizenship (problematic for a number of reasons, and almost uncertainly unconstitutional), building a massive wall, deporting everyone and their families – would require a massively powerful government intrusion on peoples’ lives. Some people are fine with that since they believe foreigners will be the victims, but government power has a way of expanding.
So here’s the dilemma – It’s unlikely Democratic voters will be swayed to vote Republican by the anti-immigrant rhetoric. That’s red meat to the right wing crowd. It’s very likely independents and even moderate Republicans will be turned off by such extremism and vote Democratic, and that Latinos and Democrats in general will be energized to fight against this neo-fascist rhetoric. Moreover, given social media and the ubiquitous use of sound bites and film, candidates won’t be able to pivot away to a more reasonable position come general election time as they did in the past.
How will Republicans handle it? Some are playing it smartly. John Kasich, for instance, refuses to engage in that kind of rhetoric, as do a number of others. If they can weather the Trumpstorm and end up the nominee, they’ll be able to pivot rather easily. Jeb Bush, while stumbling a bit on the term “anchor baby,” has an Mexican immigrant wife and spent time living in Mexico – he might have the easiest sell. But he has to get through the primaries.
If it does come down to, say, Bush vs. Clinton, will the extremists fall into line? Vote for Bush because they find Hillary so distasteful? Or will they take on the “they’re all the same” kind of rhetoric of the extremists and sit it out? Will nominating a moderate be enough, or will have Trump and Co. damaged the Republican brand in its appeal especially to Latinos? What will the down-ballot impact be?
There are two results I see as most likely: 1) The GOP nominates someone like Bush, he effectively pivots, and runs a strong campaign; and 2) The GOP nominates someone who has engaged in the harsh rhetoric, and it leads to a Republican fiasco in 2016 – perhaps including the loss of both the House and Senate. Democrats may hope for the latter, but the former seems more likely. After all, despite all the harsh rhetoric from the right wing against McCain and Romney, they ended up with the GOP nomination.
Still, if President Bush had prevailed in 2007, the Republicans would be in a much stronger position.