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Archive for Sunday, July 23, 2006

Immigration issue could be costly to GOP

July 23, 2006

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— Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida is one frustrated and worried Republican.

For six years, first as secretary of housing and urban development and more recently as a legislator, the Cuban refugee has labored to build support for President Bush and other Republicans among his fellow Hispanics.

But now, he said in an interview, "I see us throwing it away" in the fight that has split the GOP on the immigration issue.

I went to see Martinez the morning after NDN - an affiliate of the Democratic Party - had released a survey of Hispanic voters who predominantly speak Spanish that showed a sharp decline in their approval of Bush and the GOP. A group that makes up 5 percent of the electorate and has been the source of striking Republican gains in the last two presidential races now is turning away. Bush's favorability rating has sunk from the 60 percent level to 38 percent among these voters, and Democrats as a party lead the GOP by 24 percentage points.

Martinez had read a news story about the poll at breakfast and said "it is no surprise. I have seen it coming." The day before, he said, he had met with a group of House Republicans, looking for support for a compromise on the immigration bill that he helped shepherd through the Senate.

Martinez said he warned the House members that their opposition to the guest worker provisions in the Senate bill and its opening a path to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in this country was damaging the party.

But he made no headway. "They go to their town meetings and all they hear from the people there is 'Close the border,"' Martinez said. "They think that's the way to get re-elected this year. They don't think about the long-term cost."

A poll this month for The Washington Post found that immigration was outranked as an issue by the war in Iraq and the economy. But those voters who called immigration their top concern leaned heavily - 63 percent - to the GOP. So you can understand why Republicans who are on the ballot this fall are taking a hard-line position.

But the long-term threat to the GOP that Martinez sees is no myth. The percentage of Hispanics in the voting population is going to increase every election cycle for the foreseeable future, and the share of that vote that is Spanish-speaking will also rise, thanks to the number of recent immigrants.

Bush made his sharpest gains among the Spanish-speakers, boosted by an extensive outreach and advertising campaign on Spanish-language stations, largely invisible to the English-speaking audience.

The appeal, according to NDN analysts, was not primarily to the conservative religious and social values of this largely Catholic constituency. Rather, it was keyed to their aspirations for the good life, for fulfilling the American dream that brought them here.

Martinez, who fled Cuba by boat as a young boy, embodies that spirit. "The people who come from the Caribbean and Latin America are not looking for welfare," he said. "They want to work, to start businesses. Their dream is to own their own home." And that is why they listened to Bush and the Republicans extol America as a land of opportunity.

But they also have great pride - and sensitivity. Martinez commented that "immigration is not really an issue for Cubans, but we want to see people treated with respect. When they start saying that it's un-American to have ballots printed in Spanish, it sends a message that we're not wanted, not respected." In a vote last week, 181 House Republicans supported a ban on bilingual ballots, but nearly all Democrats and a minority of Republicans joined to defeat the measure.

Both Martinez and the NDN people see immigration as an issue that could be decisive nationally. NDN's Simon Rosenberg likens it to the effect on California politics when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson supported Proposition 187, an initiative to cut off social services to illegal immigrants. No Republican has won a major office in a regular statewide election since then - Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory came in a special recall vote.

Proposition 187 mobilized Hispanic voters and solidified them behind the Democrats. This immigration fight, Rosenberg said, could do the same thing nationally - and swing enough electoral votes in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada alone to make the Democrats favorites in the next presidential election.

Martinez puts it succinctly. "We can throw away all that we've gained if we follow a Pete Wilson-style strategy."

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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