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Immigration, the Tea Partiers, and the GOP's Future

It's long been apparent that immigration is an issue that is the political equivalent of unstable nitroglycerine: complex and dangerous. It arguably splits both major parties, although national Democratic politicians generally favor "comprehensive immigration reform" (basically a "path to citizenship" for undocumented workers who meet certain conditions and legalize themselves, along with various degrees of restriction on future immigration flows), and with George W. Bush gone, most Republicans oppose it.

It is of most passionate concern, for obvious reasons, to Latino voters, and also to many grass-roots conservatives for which widespread immigration from Mexico into new areas of the country has become a great symbol of an unwelcome change in the nation's complexion. But the fact remains that perceived hostility to immigrants has become a major stumbling block for Republican recruitment of otherwise-conservative Latino voters, which explains (along with business support for relatively free immigration) the otherwise odd phenomenon that it was a Republican administration that last pursued comprehensive immigration reform. (Some may remember, in fact, that immigration reform was and remains a big part of Karl Rove's strategy for insuring a long-range Republican majority).

I'm not sure how many progressives understand that immigration policy is a significant part of the narrative of "betrayal" that conservatives have written about the Bush administration--right up there with Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and big budget deficits. And implicitly, at least, when Republicans talk about "returning the GOP to its conservative principles," many would make repudiation of any interest in comprehensive immigration reform--or as they typically call it, "amnesty for Illegals"--part of the litmus test.

This is one issue of many where professional Republican pols are almost certainly happy that Barack Obama is in office right now--they don't have to take a definitive position on immigration policy unless the president first pulls the trigger by moving a proposal in Congress, and it's unlikely he will until other priorities are met.

But at some point, and particularly if Republicans win control of the House in November, and inherit the dubious prize of partial responsibility for governance, they will come under intense pressure to turn the page decisively on the Bush-Rove embrace of comprehensive immigration reform. And no matter what Obama does, immigration will definitely be an issue in the 2012 Republican presidential competition.

So it's of more than passing interest to note that the pressure on Republicans to take a national position on this issue has been significantly increased by the rise of the Tea Party Movement.

At 538.com today, Tom Schaller writes up a new study of tea partiers and racial-ethnic attitude in seven key states from the University of Washington's Christopher Parker. While the whole thing is of considerable interest, I can't tease much of immediate political signficance from the fragmentary findings that Parker has initially released, beyond the unsurprising news that Tea Partiers have general views on race, ethnicity, and GLBT rights that you'd expect from a very conservative portion of the electorate.

But one finding really does just jump off the page: Among the 22% of white voters who say they "strongly support" the Tea Party Movement in the seven states involved in the study, nearly half (45% to be exact) favor the very radical proposition that "all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should be deported immediately." That's interesting not only because it shows how strong anti-immigrant sentiment is in the Tea Party "base," but because it embraces a very specific and proactive postion that goes far beyond resistance to comprehensive immigration reform or "amnesty." The finding is all the more remarkable because it comes from a survey on "racial attitudes;" I don't know what sorts of controls Parker deployed, but polls that dwell on such issues often elicit less-than-honest answers from respondents who naturally don't want to sound intolerant.

So if and when push comes to shove for the GOP on immigration, the shove from the Tea Partiers could be especially strong. And that won't make Republican elites happy: they understand that however bright things look for the GOP this November (in a midterm contest that almost always produces an older-and-whiter-than-average electorate), their party's base of support is in elements of the population that are steadily losing demographic ground. Beginning in 2012, that will become an enduring and ever-worsening problem for the GOP, and a position on immigration guaranteed to repel Latinos would be a very heavy millstone, just as Karl Rove concluded when he pushed W. to embrace comprehensive immigration reform.

The issue is already becoming a factor in the 2010 cycle. This is most obvious in Arizona, where J.D. Hayworth's Tea-Party-oriented challenge to John McCain is in part payback for McCain's longstanding support for comprehensive immigration reform. But it could matter elsewhere as well. You'd think that Cuban-American Senate candidate Marco Rubio would be in a good position to do very well among Florida Latinos. But actually, his potential achilles heel in a likely general election matchup with Democrat Kendrick Meek (who as it happens is an African-American with his own close ties to South Florida's Cuban-American community) is a weak standing among Latinos, particulary the non-Cuban Latino community in Central Florida, attributable in no small part to his vocal opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, even if he defeats Meek, if Rubio gets waxed among Florida Latinos, Republicans will have an especially graphic illustration of the continuing political peril of opposing legalization of undocumented workers, even when advanced by a Latino politician.

The real acid test for Republicans on immigration could come in California, the state where in 1994 GOP governor Pete Wilson fatally alienated Latino voters from his party for years to come by championing a cutoff of public benefits for undocumented workers (a far less draconian proposal than immediate deportation, it should be noted). Underdog conservative gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner has made his campaign all about reviving Wilson's proposal. If Republican front-runner Meg Whitman can crush Poizner without any accomodation of his views on immigration, it could help her overcome a problem with Latino voters that emanates not only from Democrat Jerry Brown's longstanding ties to the Latino community, but from the fact that her campaign chairman is none other than Pete Wilson.

In any event, whether it's now or later, in 2010 or in 2012 and beyond: the Republican Party is going to have to deal with the political consequences of its base's hostility to Latino immigration, and to growing demands for steps ranging from benefit cutoffs to deportation of undocumented workers. With the Tea Partiers exemplifying instensely-held grass-roots conservative demands for a more aggressively anti-immigration posture, even as he political costs of obeying these demands continues to rise, Republicans will be juggling explosives on this issue for the foreseeable future.