As the cliché goes, elections have consequences. And the Nov. 6 election results have had a dramatic consequence in California. The debate over immigration—legal and otherwise, and especially otherwise—is now over. Even some Republicans are joining with Democrats to promote the “path to citizenship” for people here illegally.
The reason is obvious. Democrats—buoyed by overwhelming support from the state’s Latino voters—won every constitutional office in California and gained supermajorities in the Assembly and state Senate. Even the small band of legislative Republicans is noticing the growing percentage of Latino voters in GOP-leaning districts.
The biggest evidence of the shift will be evidenced at this weekend’s California Republican Party convention, where immigration policy debates will have a different dynamic. “California's elected Republicans have long had a simple approach to illegal immigration: Those who broke the law coming here should leave,” reported the Los Angeles Times in a recent news story. “But the confluence of politics and personal threat have now put many Republican legislators in Washington and Sacramento in a very different place.”
It’s a place that must be uncomfortable for many Republicans, after years of running hard to the right to appeal to base voters in conservative districts. Some Republicans now are embracing what party activists still refer to as “amnesty” for those immigrants already here illegally. Others are supporting the Obama administration’s plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Others still are accepting the once-radical notion of granting drivers’ licenses for “undocumented”—and this is the proper use of that loaded word here—drivers.
There no doubt will be a fight over such matters at the party confab in Sacramento and elsewhere, with grassroots activists taking a “hell no” position, but the battle is over. The California party’s future is iffy right now, which is bad news given how desperately the state needs serious pushback against the “tax, spend, and tax again” policies of the state’s Democratic Party. Without a change in its immigration approach, the party is done.
My views have changed over the years, but tend toward the “open” side given my libertarian dislike of government policies that stop individuals from charting their own course in life. But critics raise some serious questions about Balkanization, and the costly impact on the state’s infrastructure and public services. The right has been unduly mean-spirited in its rhetoric on illegal immigration and the left has unconscionably used the issue to divide our state along ethnic lines. Never mind all that. The debate is done because the politics changed.
Fighting over immigration policy in California now is as fruitful as arguing over women’s suffrage. Those on the losing side need to get over it and move on—for their own good as well as the good of the party. As one state GOP official said in the past, it’s hard to lure people to a party that wants to deport their grandmother.
The issue of illegal immigration has roiled this state since the 1970s and has dominated almost every political discussion I’ve been a part of since moving here from Ohio in the late 1990s. From education to pension to infrastructure issues to policing issues, the illegal immigration debate has been at least lurking in the background.
This is still a debate at the national level. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll reveals that a majority of American citizens “believe that most or all of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants should be deported,” according to a Reuters report. “Only 5 percent believe all illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States legally, and 31 percent want most illegal immigrants to stay.” The Obama administration has sparked controversy with its latest reform plans.
Regardless of national politics, the matter is settled in California. Unfortunately for the state’s Republicans, the mere softening of their positions may be viewed as pandering. Latino voters who are dismayed by the GOP’s long-time hard line policies on immigration are unlikely to be wooed by the party’s newfound kinder, gentler approach. This may help in a generation or two, but probably not soon. Meanwhile, Republican base voters who are upset about illegal immigration will lose their enthusiasm for the party.
Instead of fixating on immigration policies, the GOP needs to focus on what policy geeks call the “politics of aspiration.” The party needs to advocate policies that help all Californians improve their lives. These are right in the GOP wheelhouse—regulatory reform, pro-growth economics, improved education through competition, union reform, and private-sector jobs creation. This is the old Jack Kemp model of selling the benefits of the free market to Democratic constituencies.
The dismal election results might help the GOP in the long run by convincing its leaders to embrace a more positive agenda on immigration and other matters. That may be grasping at straws but it’s better than still grasping onto an old, failed approach.