Lawmakers are beginning to wrestle with a wide-ranging immigration bill, which if it becomes law, could eventually legalize millions of immigrants.
Will Democrats benefit from this potential windfall of new voters?
Or instead, in the words of one Columbia University political scientists Rodolfo de la Garza and Jeronimo Cortina, "Are Latinos Republicans but Just Don’t Know It?”
Whatever the long-term prospects might be, there are signs that right now many rank-and-file GOP voters detest the immigration proposal.
In Columbia, S.C., over the weekend at the Republican state convention, one of the bill’s GOP champions, Sen. Lindsey Graham, was booed when he defended it.
And Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., said late Monday that the reaction to the proposal in his state has been “highly, highly negative; about 80 to 1” against it in mail and in phone calls to his office.
“The Republican Party might very well collapse” if President Bush signs into law the proposal unveiled by a bipartisan group of senators, said Rep. Steve King, R- Iowa.
He added that “Republicans will get the blame” if the proposal becomes law, “and Democrats will get the credit and the votes.”
“It is demoralizing that our leadership doesn’t realize it is starting us down the road to national and political suicide,” King said.
He contended that “newly arrived immigrants assimilate into the politics of the locale where they arrive” and he reasons that illegal immigrants in Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and other metropolitan areas, if they become legalized, will largely vote Democratic.
If so, they will bulk up already large Democratic majorities in California, Illinois, New York, and Maryland and perhaps tilt to Democrats states that are currently leaning Republican, like Texas.
A provision in the proposed bill encourages illegal immigrants to "come out of the shadows" and register for "Z visas."
These visas would permit them to legally work in the United States and could lead to larger 2010 Census counts in states like California and New York.
That in turn could lead to reapportionment, giving those states more representatives in the House.
'Huge boon for Democrats'
“This will be a huge boon for Democrats in the mid-to-long term,” said University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel. But, he added, the electoral benefit to Democrats will not be immediate, because most of the newly legalized immigrants would be slow to become naturalized citizens.
“Many will be content just with permanent resident status, which does not allow them to vote,” Gimpel said. “Of those who do become citizens, they will probably vote in very low percentages at first. But eventually regular voting habits will take hold.”
Under current law, a legal permanent resident (non-citizen) can apply for citizenship only if he or she has resided in the U.S. for at least five years.
The would-be citizen must also meet other tests.
He or she cannot have been convicted of two or more crimes for which the total sentence imposed was five years or more.
Latino allegiance to Democratic candidates
Census data and election results provide evidence that most Latino voters support Democratic candidates.
The five congressional districts in California with the highest number of Latino residents are all represented by Democratic House members.
Four of those five districts went for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. Kerry carried one of the districts, the 31st, represented by Rep. Xavier Becerra, with 77 percent of the vote.
The same goes for Texas.
All five districts with the highest number of Latino residents are also represented by Democratic House members.
Bush carried three of those districts in the 2004 election and Kerry carried two.
Exit poll data also reveal the preference that Latino voters have for Democratic candidates.
In every presidential election since 1972, the data indicate most Latino voters have chosen the Democratic candidate, with their support ranging from a low of 56 percent for Kerry to a high of 76 percent for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Gimpel said this allegiance to the Democrats can be explained partly by where they live. Few Latino voters are moving into highly Republican areas, “where they might pick-up a taste for the Grand Old Party’s politics,” Gimpel wrote in recent research paper for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates against illegal immigration.
For every Latino voter living in a Republican county, there are three Latino voters living in a Democratic area. "By any accounting, that’s a very unfavorable ratio for the GOP, short or long-term," Gimpel said.
He added that “where people settle is of enormous consequence for the politics that they encounter, learn, and adopt.”
What analysts saw in 2004
In their analysis of the 2000 and 2004 elections, de la Garza and Cortina say, “the Hispanic electorate was far from abandoning its partisan attachment to the Democratic Party and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.”
Their research found a correlation among Latino voters between higher levels of education and a greater likelihood of voting Republican. But, they note, “this could be unwelcome news for Republicans” because “it suggests that as the Latino electorate grows because of new young voters and naturalized immigrants, the pool of unsophisticated voters, i.e., the less educated, will expand much more rapidly than will the ranks of the highly educated.”
So if it is not in the Republican’s interest to add more Latino voters to the electorate, why are GOP congressional leaders not fighting the new immigration bill?
One possible reason: Under the proposed plan, immigrants would need to wait at least eight years from the day the bill became law to become legal permanent residents, then wait another five years before applying for citizenship.
Thirteen years or more may be too far in the future to know how such people would vote.
GOP efforts to woo Latinos
Some GOP leaders say that Latinos will be Republicans, or at least that the party should try to woo them.
Sen. John Ensign, R- Nev., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Monday, “I don’t think as Republicans we should be willing to give up Latino votes. I think it would be a mistake for us to give up that vote – otherwise we’re going to be the minority party for a long time.”
Ensign argued that “Latinos should naturally be Republicans – they’re very much about family, family values, they’re hard-working people, small business owners. We need to go after that Hispanic vote very aggressively and, in the long term, we can get a lot of them into our party.”
Ensign noted that he got nearly 50 percent of Latino votes both times he ran for the Senate.