Immigration Shift by Republicans Silences Crackdown GovernorsMichael C. Bender and William Selway
Republican governors are in retreat over undocumented immigrants.
Governors including Jan Brewer of Arizona and Alabama’s Robert Bentley have avoided discussing their get-tough approaches on immigration in recent months as the party seeks to soften its position and appeal to Hispanic voters.
Republicans are looking for a way to reshape their image with Hispanics, the fastest-growing block of eligible voters. President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the Nov. 6 presidential election, up 4 percentage points from 2008. Obama has said he supports a path for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens and won praise from Hispanic voters last year after stopping deportations of some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“There’s been a temporary cease fire in the immigration wars at the state level,” said Darrell West, who follows the issue for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization. “They can see the demographic trends quite clearly.”
A week after Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a son of immigrants from India, told reporters the party needed to change its approach. Hispanic advocacy groups had criticized immigration laws adopted in recent years in Republican-controlled states, such as Arizona, which instructed police to check a suspect’s immigration status during an arrest or traffic stop.
Republican governors, in Washington for a gathering of the National Governors Association, joined party donors at a private meeting on Feb. 22 to discuss how Congress should alter immigration policy. They spoke favorably about allowing an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who supported an Arizona-style law during his 2010 campaign, said he no longer is willing to support the measure.
“We need to be focused on our economy,” Walker said in an interview. An immigration debate would “distract from that,” he said.
Bentley and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said they’re stepping away from the issue because Congress is considering immigration legislation. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is negotiating a measure that may grant citizenship to some undocumented immigrants.
Asked whether he is backing off for fear of alienating Hispanic voters, Bentley responded by saying states adopted laws because the federal government wasn’t doing enough.
“We just encourage them to finally come up with a comprehensive plan and enforce the laws,” Bentley said.
Of the nation’s 53 million Hispanics, 24 million are eligible to vote because of their age and legal status, which makes up about 11 percent of the U.S. electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington. That proportion, up from 9.5 percent in 2008, is expected to reach 16 percent by 2030, the center’s research shows.
The Republicans’ shift won’t help the party win votes because Hispanics will remember that Democrats have traditionally backed rewriting immigration laws, said Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat.
“They’re tired of getting their butts kicked,” Malloy said of Republicans.
New state crackdowns on immigration, or harsh speeches by governors, would hurt Republican effort to change the party’s image, said Carlos Gutierrez, a former U.S. commerce secretary under former Republican President George W. Bush.
Gutierrez was part of the private Republican meeting on immigration that included Governors Rick Perry of Texas and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
“There was a lot of very good discussion that what we need to do is to be the party that welcomes immigrants, helps them succeed and celebrates when they succeed,” Gutierrez said. “There is a general agreement about that and that we have to be conscious about the tone that we use.”
His recently formed super-political action committee, Republicans for Immigration Reform, will back candidates in primary elections next year who support relaxing immigration laws, he said.
The 2010 Arizona law, designed to push out undocumented immigrants, was replicated in five other states a year later, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Arizona law, championed by Brewer, included the provision known as “show me your papers” about checking immigration status during arrests. It also forced migrants to carry their federal paperwork and made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to seek work.
Similar laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, only to be largely invalidated by legal challenges, including last year’s Supreme Court ruling that states must defer to the federal government on immigration policy.
Brewer has since moderated her comments on immigration and last month pledged to work for a bipartisan plan in Congress if the federal government first ensured “a safe border.”
Other governors who emphasized the issue, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, have been largely silent. Scott, who pledged his support for an Arizona-style law said during his 2010 Republican primary race, hasn’t included immigration on his list of priorities.
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney last year who is now leading a campaign to support women and minority Republican candidates, said the party can win back Hispanic votes.
“Some of the rhetoric surrounding immigration reform has not been helpful in attracting Hispanic voters to the Republican Party,” Gillespie said in an interview. “We have an opportunity to get our numbers back up if we are smart in approaching it.”