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Why the Republicans Will Continue to Oppose Obama on Immigration

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The Republicans found themselves wrongfooted by the nation's changing ethnic demography in the election, but endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants may carry more risks than rewards for the GOP.

Across the blogosphere, commentators of all political stripes are pointing to the advantage which the unprecedented minority vote gave to Obama in both presidential elections. Leading Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity now endorse a pathway to citizenship.

The issue divides those who believe that hard-working undocumented Hispanics have earned a right to citizenship from others who claim that an amnesty rewards people who break the law and will encourage further illegal inflows.

At the back of many Republican minds is the changing ethnic composition of America. Already, one in three Americans has a minority background, rising to 51% among those under five. In the sixteen years between 1978 and 1992 the share of minorities in the electorate barely budged, from 11 to 13%. In the following sixteen years it doubled, to 26%, reaching 28% in this election. Much of the increase was powered by Hispanic growth. Among those under five, they form close to 30% of the population.

There are two Democratic identifiers for every Republican in the Hispanic electorate and 72% went for Obama in 2012. The inexorable rise of Hispanic voters helped shift California from the battleground state of Ronald Reagan to a safely Democratic stronghold. Might it do the same for the country as a whole? This is Ruy Teixeira and John Judis' contention in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority.

So what will the Republicans do? On the one hand, an amnesty may convince some Latino voters that Republicans are receptive to their concerns. But against this, it remains the case that a majority of the up to 10 million new citizens will probably vote Democratic. In addition, many in the Republican base are strongly opposed to an amnesty. Finally, it is in the Republicans' long-term electoral interest to reduce levels of low-skilled immigration and naturalization.

Projections which I published recently with Vegard Skirbekk and Anne Goujon in Population Studies show that the level of immigration will have a significant effect on Republican vote share in the next three decades. Assuming a 70-30 Democrat to Republican split in the immigrant vote, reducing current immigration by half will halve the projected growth in Democratic partisan share to 2040. Doubling the inflow will produce the opposite effect. Though a significant share of American immigration already consists of the legalization of the undocumented, an amnesty for millions will hasten the process.

An amnesty is also not an obvious way to appeal to minorities. Some 40% of the growing minority population is Asian or Black, few of whom have a connection to undocumented immigrants. Canada's largely Asian ethnic minorities are more likely than white voters to support the Conservative Party: the Canadian right has managed to woo them with a platform of social and fiscal conservatism. The Conservatives' tough talk on illegal immigration generally went down well with these immigrants who resented queue-jumpers.

But more is at stake than appealing to voters' interests. The political scientist Donald Green and his colleagues argue that partisanship is deeply bound up with who we are in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and region. Might an amnesty help Hispanics to identify with the Republican brand?

The problem here is that American Hispanics are a disparate group consisting of the native and foreign-born, Spanish and English-speakers, Catholics and Protestants, and those identifying as white, other race and black. Broadly speaking, white, native-born, English-speaking, middle-class and Protestant Hispanics are more likely to identify as Republican.

History teaches us that a group starts to tack toward the Republicans as its members assimilate into the majority group. For instance, during the last great wave of American immigration in the early twentieth century, the historian Brian Gratton finds that immigrants and their children from the previous wave in the mid-nineteenth century voted in favor of the Republicans' restrictionist stance, handing the GOP victories in the 1920s.

On the census, half of Latinos describe themselves as white. John Iceland finds that these Hispanics are much less residentially segregated from Anglos than nonwhite Hispanics. Meanwhile, Hispanic citizens are becoming more Anglo as a new generation emerges which is largely US-born and English-speaking. Native-born anglophone Hispanics are as much as ten points more Republican than their Spanish-speaking counterparts. The feeling is mutual. Rene Rocha and Rodolfo Espino show that Anglos are much more politically sensitized to Spanish-speaking Hispanics than to English-speaking ones. On top of this, a third of Hispanics marry whites and the political loyalties of 'Spanglo' offspring like Jeb Bush's son George Prescott Bush may lean in a more Republican direction than that of the average Latino.

Finally, Hispanics are becoming more Protestant. Furman university political scientist James Guth and his co-authors discovered that in the Latino population there is one Protestant for every two Catholics. Hispanic Protestants split their vote evenly between the Democrats and the GOP in 2004, with conservative Hispanic evangelicals backing George W. Bush to the tune of almost 80%. This, rather than Latino Catholic support, is what accounted for much of Bush's 40% support among Hispanic voters. The ranks of Protestant Hispanics are growing: work colleagues and I have done with the General Social Survey (GSS) shows that as many as 10% of Hispanics raised as Catholics had switched to Protestantism by 2006.

As the self-confessed "English-dominant, light-skinned" Hispanic Slate correspondent Matthew Yglesias recently commented, "endorsing immigration reform now might make things worse for [Republicans], by enlarging an electorate that's fundamentally hostile to their worldview." Given the electoral arithmetic, the Republicans will probably seek to water down an amnesty while running growing numbers of Hispanic candidates like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Such figureheads may help connect the GOP to a growing cohort of Americanized Hispanics who consider themselves distinct from recent arrivals. Despite the conciliatory talk of several elite Republicans, don't expect the GOP to suddenly go soft on immigration.