Young people in Los Angeles line up in August to apply for the Obama administration's deportation reprieve.
GOP stuck on immigration
01:41 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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On the threshold of the 2016 election, the GOP is in a terrible fix over immigration

If Republicans want to win back Hispanic support, they have to stop alienating those voters with their policies

San Diego CNN  — 

On the threshold of the 2016 election, the GOP is in a terrible fix over immigration. They’ve done such an effective job of alienating Hispanics over the years with their overall approach to immigration.

Fences need to be mended. At least that’s the views of Republicans who understand changing demographics and realize the folly of antagonizing a population that produces more than 2 million potential voters every four years and maintains a sizable presence in three battleground states: Nevada, Florida and Colorado.

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And yet, in politics, the first rule is that elected officials should always remember to take care of their base – elements of which, for the GOP, frown on attempts by Republican politicians to engage in “Hispandering” by reaching out to Hispanic voters and softening their tone on immigration. It’s mostly about jealously and resentment over seeing elected officials who used to woo them going off to woo somewhere else.

Nonetheless, going forward, Republicans aren’t sure what to do, and this indecision stems from three things.

First, it is an article of faith among Republicans – particularly those in the House of Representatives – that the voters who turned out in November and put the GOP back in control of both houses of Congress want them to derail what the right-wing inaccurately describes as Obama’s “executive amnesty.”

That’s what House Republicans attempted to do recently when they used amendments to a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security to cut off funding for the administration’s plan to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation. The tactic divides Republicans and sets up a confrontation with GOP Senate colleagues, who are expected to scuttle the measure.

It’s also a largely symbolic effort that will, in the end, not amount to much besides giving House Republicans something to point to down the road, when they go home to their districts. They’re probably counting on the fact that, while some of their constituents will be angry that Obama’s executive action survived, others will give conservative lawmakers an “A” for effort.

Second, the Republican establishment and other moderates – both in Washington and at the state level – are determined to win back Hispanic support and not further antagonize or alienate those voters, unless the GOP wants to turn up DOA in the next several presidential elections.

Republicans don’t have to turn themselves inside out, but they need to deal with immigration with more honesty, nuance and common sense.

They should stop attacking immigrants because they’re frustrated by the government’s response to illegal immigration. And they should pick on people their own size by going after employers. Finally, they need to adopt a zero tolerance policy the next time a Republican official says something racist or nativist. Too many Republicans are cowards when it comes to acknowledging the role that ethnicity plays in the current anxiety that many Americans feel about managing immigration and securing the borders.

And third, according to polls, nearly 90% of Hispanic voters support Obama’s executive action and about 80% of Hispanic voters say the GOP should not interfere with it, which sets up the possibility that Hispanics will punish Republicans if they continue to try to dismantle the policy.

This doesn’t mean that all or even most Hispanics want open borders. It’s hard to make that argument given that, at the moment, most Border Patrol agents are Hispanic.

But what I hear from Hispanics is that while they’re fed up with how both parties play politics with the immigration issue, they’re really furious at Republicans for that party’s efforts to demagogue this issue in order to scare up votes from white people.

Hispanics say they want employers punished and not just the immigrants who can’t defend themselves. And they tell me despite Republicans denying that race and ethnicity are factors in the debate, they don’t believe for one minute that Americans would be this shook up if the majority of illegal immigrants were coming from Canada, Sweden or Great Britain instead of Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

So how do Republicans placate those right-wing elements of their base and undo Obama’s executive action on immigration without further enraging Hispanics? It won’t be easy. Payback can be brutal. And while some political parties never learn, Hispanics never forget.

Republicans could stubbornly decide that they don’t need Hispanic support in 2016 and beyond, and so they don’t have to worry about alienating them. Or they could roll the dice and count on the assumption that – despite what the polls say – not all Hispanics support Obama’s executive action because they oppose illegal immigration as much as other Americans.

For now, Republicans seem to be going down a third road and simply ignoring the practical impact that their attempted rollback of Obama’s executive action would have on the millions of illegal immigrants who – if the GOP were successful – would suddenly be, once again, eligible for deportation. Republicans don’t want those people to be the focus of this discussion, and they’d prefer the attention to be on the validity of executive action itself. That is where they’re shifting the conversation.

That’s a weak attempt to dodge the issue. Hispanics are closer to this issue than other Americans because more of them have first-hand contact with illegal immigrants. They know this debate isn’t some abstract discussion of competing priorities. They know it’s about people and detached politicians deciding who stays and who goes.

That sounds like a fun game. Well, next year, Hispanics will get to play. They’ll help decide which elected officials stay in office and which ones go home for good.

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