No matter your feelings regarding the merits of a single state – Arizona – taking action on immigration, there can be no doubt that what the state legislature and governor have done in the land of the Grand Canyon has set off another raging national debate. Boycotts are threatened. Lawsuits are planned.
Makes you wonder, as Linda Greenhouse wrote, what the ol’ libertarian Barry Goldwater would have thought about a bill that requires police to ask a person they only suspect of immigration violations for their papers.
The Arizona law has also, I suspect, firmly cemented the partisanship of immigration politics to the long-term detriment of the GOP.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial legislation, had hardly gotten her pen back in her pocket before some of the more strategic thinkers in the Republican Party – Jeb Bush a Floridian and Karl Rove a Texan – declared Arizona’s sweeping immigration legislation a big political mistake. The GOP’s U.S. Senate hope in Florida almost immediately put distant between the Arizona action and his candidacy. With a name like Marco Rubio that may not really be a big surprise, but it does signal a Republican problem.
Here’s why these Republican luminaries are worried. The demographics of America continue to change – and rapidly. According to the Pew Center’s profile of the nation’s Hispanic population, Hispanics now comprise at least 10% of the population in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26% of the population. In Arizona, the number is 30% and in California its 37%. No wonder Meg Whitman, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate, immediately said there are better ways to address the issue than the Arizona approach.
The median age of the Hispanic population in Idaho is 22 and other states are slightly above or below that number. The median age of native born Hispanics in Idaho is 15. Ninety percent of young Hispanics in Arizona are U.S. citizens. Do the political math. The Hispanic population is growing. These are young families and in a decade or so they will be voting in much larger numbers than today.
The immigration legislation in Arizona may crystallize what is potentially a very tight race between Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Depending upon the poll and the day, the lead in race is in constant flux. The debate in the great Southwest could also sharpen the partisan divide nationally as Democrats generally oppose the Arizona effort. By contrast, the GOP is all over the map.
For a long time the conventional political wisdom about this issue has held that the only real risk for a candidate was being too soft on immigration and that may hold for a while, but it is hard to argue with the numbers and the trends. If Democrats want a comeback strategy in a place like ruby red Idaho, they best start with understanding the demographics and aspirations of the growing Hispanic population. These Americans – and a generation of new voters – are up for grabs and Republicans, in Arizona at least, have sent a message – they’re not interested.
Democrats best get out the clip boards and start walking the neighborhood. Arizona just handed them an opportunity to organize, organize and organize. They don’t need to be in favor of anything except fairness and equal opportunity, old American values that will appeal to the fastest growing group of Americans.
The courts will eventually decide whether Arizona’s law is, as Rove suggested, fraught with Constitutional problems. The court of Hispanic public opinion may already be set to render a verdict that is fraught with real long-term political problems for Republicans.