Immigration reform not a cure-all for GOP

A bipartisan group of leading senators announce that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. From left are Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. The deal covers border security, guest workers and employer verification, as well as a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Since faring poorly among Latino voters at the polls in November, the GOP has embraced the issue of immigration reform with a new urgency.

In reality, though, the Republican disconnect with Hispanics is about much more than immigration.

For starters, while immigration is an oft-covered topic, it’s not the top issue on Latino voters’ priority list. In a pre-election Pew Hispanic Center survey released last fall, a majority of Hispanic voters said education, health care and jobs/the economy were “extremely important” to them. But only 34 percent said the same about immigration.

Now, this doesn’t mean that from a political standpoint, Republicans should not focus their energy on immigration reform (more on that in a moment). What it does mean is that if they want to improve their standing among Latino voters, they also need to address other fiscal and social issues in a way that the growing Hispanic share of the electorate can agree with.

That’s easier said than done. Why? Because there is a significant gap between some pillars of the Republican platform and the over-arching worldview of Hispanics.

Take the call for limited government, a cornerstone of the GOP’s political message. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey taken last summer, 67 percent of Hispanics said they favor a “larger federal government with many services” over a “smaller federal government with fewer services.” Republicans expressed a dramatically different viewpoint in the poll, with 80 percent saying they prefer a “smaller federal government with fewer services.”

What about another familiar GOP talking point: lowering federal spending and the deficit? In the same poll, 68 percent of Hispanics said it is more important to “increase federal spending to try to create jobs and improve the economy” than to avoid “a big increase in the federal deficit.” Seventy-three percent of Republicans said the latter is more important.

Indeed, these are philosophical disagreements the GOP must confront. But none of this is to say Republicans shouldn’t also help spearhead an immigration reform effort. If they want to revamp their image among Hispanics, Republicans can’t afford to stand on the sidelines.

According to 2012 exit poll data, nearly eight in 10 Hispanic voters said they support a path to legal status for for most illegal immigrants working in the country, something a bipartisan Senate working group proposed on Monday. And it’s not just Hispanic voters Republicans risk further alienating; the exit polls also show a majority of all voters (65 percent) said they support a path to legal status.

In 2012, the Hispanic share of the electorate went up, while the GOP presidential nominee’s share of their vote dropped, compared to 2008. That should come as troubling news to a party that is licking multiple wounds after a disappointing cycle.

But even as the GOP turns over a new leaf on immigration reform, it is still playing catch-up with Democrats. Already, President Obama has used the power of executive fiat to prevent the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants. By comparison, Romney, the GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer, adopted a hard-line posture on immigration and border security in the primary that cost him dearly in the general election.

Embracing immigration reform is one step the GOP can take toward improving its performance among Latino voters in future elections. But it’s not even close to a cure-all.