The reason why Democrats favor immigration reform is also why Republicans don’t: More Hispanic voters. With whites slated to lose their demographic dominance by 2042, the GOP fears that amnesty will hand the Democratic Party and its Big Government agenda an unbeatable electoral coalition into perpetuity. Republicans will be able to win national elections not by sticking to their limited government ideals — but promising free goodies to minorities.
But Republicans need simply look north to realize that such defeatist thinking represents a failure of imagination.
Canadian conservatives were in the exact same boat as the GOP in the 1990s. Rapid immigration from Asia and elsewhere had allowed liberals to cobble together a seemingly invincible block of French-speaking Quebecers plus immigrants in Toronto and Vancouver for three consecutive electoral wins. Conservatives were viewed as a scary “anti-immigrant, rural white man’s party.” In 2000, 70 percent of all identifiable minorities voted for the Liberal Party.
That was then.
In the last three elections, Canada’s conservatives have made rapid strides in wooing immigrants. By 2008, minorities were as likely to vote conservative as liberal. Three years later, of the 23 seats that Tories picked up in national elections, 20 were in the greater Toronto region where immigrants constitute over 30 percent of the population. In fact, so popular are conservatives with immigrants that Haroon Siddiqui, a liberal Toronto Star columnist (ironically, an Indian émigré), recently complained that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants more immigrants because “’ethnic voters’ helped him win his majority.”
How did Canadian conservatives turn the tables?
The man credited with crafting the conservative charm offensive toward immigrants is Canada’s minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, an Irish white man with a reportedly a superhuman capacity for outreach — and wolfing down samosas and perogies.
But Kenney hasn’t simply relied on his personal charisma with immigrants. He has also persuaded conservatives that immigrants’ attachment to their native religions, customs and tongues enrich — not threaten — broader Canadian culture. Strong patriotism in Canada now correlates with strong pro-immigrant attitudes, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
But Kenney’s party has also backed its words with policies — big and small.
On the small side, it has lowered arrival fees, showing that it sees immigrants not as an economic liability — but as an asset. Republicans, by contrast, are perfectly happy to raise visa fees, even on high-skilled foreigners.
Nothing is more conservative than combating bureaucracy. And Canada’s Tories have made reform of Ottawa’s red-tape-ridden immigration system their top priority. The GOP likewise could have made cutting the decades-long wait that, say, Chinese computer engineers endure to obtain their green cards its cause du jour, but it’s been mostly AWOL on the issue.
Immigrants are not monolithic; each group has its own special issues and needs. So the Harper administration made it a point to listen and incorporate their concerns in its platform — not simply market its existing agenda in multiple languages, as Mitt Romney tried.
For example, it has promoted family tax cuts in part because suburban immigrants are deeply family-oriented and frugal. Asian Indians tend to own mom-and-pop stores and so the Harper administration has made small business tax cuts its key plank. Many Middle Eastern Christians flock to Canada because of religious persecution and to them the administration has emphasized its commitment to religious freedom.
In each case, Canadian conservatives have appealed to immigrants through its own principles of less government and more freedom — not by playing Santa Claus. Nor has the Harper administration shied away from cracking down on welfare use by immigrants. Kenney himself recently crafted new rules for sponsoring foreign parents to ensure that they don’t end up on the dole. Immigrants, like natives, accept the need for reasonable border restrictions and stopping welfare abuse so long as such initiatives stem from a need to address specific problems, not broader anti-immigrant animus.
Canada’s lesson is that the GOP can’t win immigrants by being liberal lite and shouldn’t try. Instead, it has to consult its own principles and offer a credible alternative package. And that’s nothing to fear.
This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.