The immigration bill pending in Congress poses as crucial a test for GOP efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters as the 1964 Civil Rights Act did in determining the future partisan preferences of America's African-Americans.
In 1964, the Republican Party, led by Barry Goldwater, was painted as sacrificing the interests of civil rights to its goal of attracting Southern support, although Republicans backed the bill in far greater numbers than Democrats did. But when Goldwater ran for president rejecting civil rights legislation, it doomed GOP chances among black voters for at least the next 40 years.
Will the Republican need to appease its anti-immigration base similarly vitiate President Bush's efforts to appeal to Hispanic voters?
Hispanics, let's remember, were the swing voter group in 2004. Having voted for Al Gore by 30 points in 2000, they sufficiently trusted Bush to back Sen. John Kerry by only an eight-point margin. If the Republican Party now turns its back on these newly swing Latino voters, it may permanently lose its ability to win America's fastest-growing voter group, perhaps dooming the party altogether.
But the demands of the GOP base must also be accommodated. Here's how:
One must separately consider the three key elements of immigration reform under discussion: The border fence, the guest-worker program and the criminalization of illegal aliens and those who employ them.
The GOP base wants a fence. It is vital to the entire concept of whether or not we can control our borders. All efforts to beef up manpower on the border have failed to stem the daily flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. A fence is the only way to do it. By backing a fence and demonstrably taking control of our southern border, the Republican Party will appease the demands of its base.
But to prevent disaster among Latino voters, it must accompany the fence with a more liberal policy on guest workers and criminalization.
Simply put, the fence must have a gate that swings open for immigrants we want and need. To avoid permanently antagonizing our southern neighbors and to keep the labor supply on which so much of American business and prosperity depend, we need a guest-worker program.
The GOP base, happy with the fence, will probably go along with it. Whatever the Congress needs to do to differentiate the guest-worker program from amnesty it should do, but it must pass a generous guest-worker program. (If it is necessary for those here illegally to return to Mexico and reenter as registered and enrolled guest workers, to convince the right that a guest-worker program is not amnesty, so be it).
With a 4.7 percent unemployment rate, we will be slitting our own throats by denying our economy access to Mexican workers. We just need to make them legal, not illegal. With a border fence to enforce the difference, a guest-worker program will work politically.
And it is also important for the Republicans to avoid symbolic acts like making it a felony to be here illegally or to employ someone who is. The same practical deterrence is quite possible through the fence, and merely upgrading the jail time from a misdemeanor to a felony won't make much practical difference.
Judges, in any event, are not about to crowd our jails with millions of felony illegal entrants. Deportation is and will be the answer to those we catch — and deportation has new meaning with a fence in place.
Yes to the fence, yes to guest workers and no to greater criminalization are the keys to giving the Republican Party access to Latino votes in the future while coping with an issue that roils tens of millions of Americans.