By Allan H. Ryskind
August 27, 2001 - How far will the White House and some of its eager pro-immigrant Republican allies go to try to capture the Hispanic vote? The short answer: We don't know yet.
Much will depend on the results of George Bush's high-stakes visit with Mexican President Vicente Fox on September 5, when he is expected to lay out his plans for dealing with the huge number of Hispanic illegals in the United States, now estimated to be at least 6 million.
Republican concern about the Hispanic vote is intense. The Hispanic population has jumped from 22.4 million to 32.8 million in the past decade, and should surpass the African-American population when the next census rolls around.
Matthew Dowd, a key Republican National Committee (RNC) adviser who directed polling for the Bush campaign, says the growth of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote has turned Republican-tilting states, such as Florida, into swing states, while bolstering Democratic turnout in Illinois and Michigan. Even such Republican states as Arizona, Colorado and Texas, Dowd informed us last week, are likely to be in play as a result of the swelling Hispanic population. In California, a state that Reagan once ruled, the Democrats now reign, largely because of the Hispanics. That vote, now comprising 14% of the turnout, may well double in the next few years.
But the Bush White House and numerous Republican politicos not only favor courting Hispanics, as they must, but also often appear to be pursuing what some critics are calling a "pander strategy," detrimental to both national security and, possibly, the GOP itself.
The courting of the Latinos has been obvious and lavish. Typical of Bush's wooing effort was his mid-August visit to New Mexico, a state he lost by an eyelash in 2000. In Albuquerque, he cut a ribbon at the Hispano Chamber of Commerce (partly funded with a federal HUD grant), met with Latino job seekers and insisted those in Congress voting for tougher safety standards for Mexican trucks were engaging in an act of "discrimination against Mexico."
The wooing has also included the announced ending of Vie-ques bombing runs in Puerto Rico (despite U.S. military objections), support of bilingual education (there's a 300% increase in the Senate education bill, with no White House opposition), and broad hints that a major immigration liberalization program is underway.
But a key to sweeping the Hispanic vote into the Republican column, according to several GOP strategists, is "legalizing the illegals," which will pave the way for a huge increase in Hispanic voters, at least over the long haul. Should Bush propose anything less, it is argued, he may not improve his present position-or the GOP's position-with the Hispanics. That point of view, incidentally, is taken by the Democrats and Hispanic advocacy groups as well.
The most extreme "amnesty" proposal from the right side of the political spectrum has been served up by Robert Bartley, who controls the Wall Street Journal's solidly Republican and pro-business editorial page. In a recent column, he celebrated Mexican President Vicente Fox's vision of "open borders for not only goods and investment but also people."
Concerned about the illegal Hispanic immigrants pouring into this country at several hundred thousand a year? You're one of a group of small-minded "naysayers," according to Bartley. Maybe unpatriotic. Even if you just want to "limit" this chaotic condition and worry about assimilation, you're probably suffering from "anti-immigrant hysteria."
In Bartley's extreme view, nothing can or should be done. He strongly suggests he favors giving all the illegals amnesty, a plan resembling ideas floated out of the Colin Powell-John Ashcroft group in July.
Indeed, Bartley goes further, arguing that we might well consider "opening NAFTA's borders completely." In other words, illegal immigration would no longer be a problem, because Hispanics would be welcomed into this country in unlimited and, virtually uncontrolled, numbers. Period.
The President almost certainly will not publicly embrace Bartley's solution-even if he may harbor some sympathy for it-but he will be under considerable pressure to liberalize immigration greatly when Fox comes to Washington, D.C., next week.
Fox publicly called on the United States to offer a broad amnesty to illegal workers after his two day visit to Chicago in July. Later that month, his foreign minister, Jorge Casta-ñeda, turned up the heat at a convention of hotel and restaurant employees in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, Castaneda "thrilled" the union delegates by "vowing to fight for the `whole enchilada' of immigration reform," including amnesty.
Business groups are also pushing to "regularize" or "legalize" or give "permanence to" or provide a "path to residency for" illegals, all basically euphemisms for some form of "amnesty," a word that has not gone over well with the public or Republican lawmakers. "Earned adjustment" and "earned legalization"-making it easier for illegals with a lengthy work record to get permanent status-are still additional amnesty euphemisms creeping into the vocabulary of immigration discussions.
The Democrats, labor and left-wing activists are already set to outbid Bush, should his plan come up short in the eyes of Hispanics. Anticipating Bush's program, Senate and House Democrats have called for legalizing all "undocumented" workers, not just those from Mexico, as the Bush people had initially suggested. One of the Democrats' strongest political arms, the AFL-CIO-having pulled a dramatic switch on the immigration issue-now calls for a sweeping new amnesty program, which would grant legal status and eventual citizenship to all illegal immigrant workers in the United States. Teddy Kennedy is already preparing legislation that he believes will be far more attractive to the Hispanics than Bush's.
Left-wing Hispanic advocacy groups are bluntly warning the President that anything less than a major amnesty for illegal immigrants will seriously harm the Republican courting effort. The Republicans are being told this in "every which way we can think of," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.
What Bush will finally come up with is still unclear, although the word is out that he's backing off an immediate "blanket amnesty" for millions of Mexican illegals. But some form of eventual amnesty for millions of illegals appears to be in the works, though it isn't likely to be called that.
Rep. Chris Cannon (R.-Utah), a strong conservative, has been designated the point man by the White House for Bush's immigration policy. Though a junior member of the House immigration subcommittee, Cannon has lived in both Chile and Guatemala, speaks fluent Spanish and was picked because he favors a generous immigration policy.
Though many Republicans fear the Hispanic vote that will surely swell with any type of amnesty or "earned legalization," the RNC's Dowd says the thinking of a number of GOP strategists comes down to this: Bush got 35% of the Hispanic vote, far better than Dole's 22%. And, unlike blacks, Hispanics grow more Republican "as they move into the middle-class. If we just get a three, four or five per cent boost [in 2004], it's a big deal." Bush, he stresses, now has a "58% approval rating among Hispanics" and Republicans would like to keep it that way.
There are plenty of skeptics to this all-out effort to bag the Hispanic vote, with some believing those Republican politicos and business folk gunning for this ethnic group may be slipping a Dr. Kevorkian cocktail to the party they are supposedly trying to revive. What they are proposing is a Riverboat or, more aptly, a Rio Grande, gamble, at best, say the critics.
George W. Bush, they note, is the most pro-Hispanic Republican nominee ever to adorn the top of the national ticket. He received 49% of the Hispanic vote as governor. He speaks Spanish, his brother's wife was born in Mexico of Mexican parents, he favors bilingual education and some form of generous policy for illegals. And all this was known during his run for the White House. But what was his percentage of the Hispanic vote in the presidential campaign? A not so spectacular 35%.
Michael Barone, one of the best number-crunchers on minority votes in the business, tells us in his very pro-immigrant, The New Americans, that in 2000 Gore captured 68% of the Hispanic vote in the electoral rich state of California, Bush only 29%. Not much comfort in those figures, either.
In Texas, Bush's home state where Latinos ostensibly adore him, Bush still managed to pull only 43% of the Hispanic vote in 2000, while Gore grabbed 54%.
A Matter of Message?
Even Rep. Cannon admits that he isn't certain how Hispanics would react were Bush to come forth with a major liberalization program. Asked if he had any concern that Hispanics, because they are on the lower end of the economic scale, will continue to vote Democratic, he responded: "You know, they do vote Democratic and I'm actually concerned about that." But he insisted that "they are voting Democratic because Republicans haven't got their message out. . . . If we don't have those people in our party, that's our problem."
Cannon and those who agree with him are counting on the President's courting of Latinos to pay off big at the polls, even though history would suggest that the Democratic Party is far better in winning over low-income minority voters. And while many middle-class Hispanics tend to vote Republican, it is far from clear that the Hispanic middle class is increasing in major numbers.
"Are Latinos moving into the middle class?" asks Barone in The New Americans. "Some evidence suggests not." Hence the belief that the Bush people are embarked on a rather hefty gamble with their Hispanic strategy. The end result may very well be what they clearly don't want: a major increase in the Democratic vote.
This story was edited from a longer version provided by the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, DC. Http://www.cis.org.