Research News

Researcher: Republicans are fumbling the immigration issue

Before the Republican presidential nominating process is through, the scenario will likely unfold many times: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann or some combination thereof sparring over who’s tougher on immigration issues.

According to a Vanderbilt political scientist, what you’ll really be watching when that happens is the Republicans alienating many voters who might be inclined to  support the GOP.

“I’ve just collected survey data showing that when politicians make very aggressive references to illegal immigrants, they are in essence turning off many Latinos, a growing segment of the American electorate,” said Efren Perez, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “This type of xenophobic rhetoric further limits the effectiveness of efforts by some Republicans to reach out to Latino voters.”

In survey data set to be presented in March in Portland, Ore., at the annual conference of the Western Political Science Association, Perez observes that “the Latino community is far broader and differentiated than the Democratic bloc of voters perceived by many.

Efren Perez (Vanderbilt)

“There are many third- and fourth-generation Latinos who have very little connection to Latin America anymore,” Perez said. “These folks are very integrated into American society. They are business owners and might be more responsive to Republican ideas and principles.”

But when politicians ramp up anti-immigrant rhetoric, conservative-leaning Latinos are likely to “run for the hills,” Perez said. Indeed, one major consequence of xenophobic rhetoric seems to be that it makes Latinos more strongly attached to their ethnic group and less trusting of politics and politicians in Washington, D.C.

“The irony is that this xenophobic discourse by politicians is not targeted at that community,” Perez said. “It’s targeted at this other audience of anti-immigration Americans, but it has ricochet effects on Latinos who might be exposed to these types of messages.”

President Obama is not as well-positioned as he could be to profit from this phenomenon, Perez said.

“President Obama has been understandably distracted by the economy and foreign issues, and it has cost him with Latinos.” However, should Obama’s team choose to court Latinos with pro-immigration stances, they should be prepared to face blowback from hardcore anti-immigration voters, he said.

Perez suggests that a candidate like Romney may be best-positioned to court conservative-leaning Latino voters. He is more flexible than other Republican presidential candidates on immigration issues, and there is a solid conservative argument to be made for that position.

“When I hear Republicans saying the government needs to intervene and do more about immigration, I’m thinking that these are the same folks who say that philosophically the government should intervene less in society,” Perez said.

“Romney could make a good conservative Republican argument that we should allow economic forces, supply and demand, to set the threshold on what is good as far as immigration levels.”

President George W. Bush, before the Sept. 11 attacks, had made solid progress courting conservative Latinos, Perez said.

“If history wouldn’t have intervened that way, then I think that would have been a major contribution of Bush,” Perez said. “But when everything became about national security, other issues like this got put to the side.”