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Is the GOP Taking the Wrong Tack on Immigration?

This morning, I attended a panel called “Can Conservatism Survive Mass Immigration?” The question posed to the panelists, most of whom were conservatives, is whether Republicans could still perform well with voters — particularly Latinos — with their current rhetoric and policy on immigration. The short answer, according to panelists, was no: Immigrants will likely continue to overwhelmingly gravitate toward Democrats, leaving Republicans in a lose-lose situation for nearly all policy prescriptions.

Panelists mentioned — and quickly dismissed — several Republican pushes for improving immigration policy. While Latino immigrants typically identify as Democrats, the GOP could have a better chance winning over other sets of highly-skilled immigrants, said James Gimpel, a government professor from the University of Maryland.

But the political will to pass visa reform to allow more highly-skilled workers is lacking, other panelists argued. “The reason that we’re never going to get to some kind of high skilled immigrant policy, the civil rights prism that we view immigration policy would make that impossible,” said moderator Mark Krikorian, director of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies.

The debate over birthright citizenship, most recently spearheaded by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), likely damaged the GOP’s reputation on immigration, said David Frum, editor of FrumForum and a former Bush speechwriter. “Republicans need to send the message that this is not about race,” he said, adding that many white voters could find the rhetoric off-putting as well. “I don’t think you need oversensitive ears to hear a lot of racial coding in the Republican message of the past two years.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at National Review magazine, said the “pro-legal immigration, anti-illegal immigration” strategy favored by Republicans such as Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio won’t win Republicans any favors among Latino voters. “It amounts to enthusiastically supporting arrival of new Democratic voters while still harassing their friends and neighbors,” he said.

So what should the party do, other than keeping quiet on immigration? Ponnuru said the party could benefit — albeit marginally — from more outreach to black and Latino media outlets, and additional government spending on programs such as English as a second language courses.

It’s a message some members of the Republican Party seem to have received, with candidates such as Meg Whitman in California attempting to woo Latino voters through heavy outreach and opposition to Arizona’s harsh SB 1070 immigration law. The Republican National Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, too, have been careful to veer the debate over birthright citizenship to the less-contentious waters of “birth tourism.”

Still, some panelists argued efforts to win over Latino voters to the GOP could be a losing battle in a nation with growing economic inequality. “In the ideology of conservatism, opportunity is supposed to be the equalizer,” Frum said. “If that opportunity is dwindling, is conservatism even relevant?”

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