The top two finishers in the Iowa Republican caucuses on Monday are both stridently opposed to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — but it’s possible that their continued success could be a good thing for immigration reform.
Here’s how that logic works, according to reform advocates: The longer that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and business mogul Donald Trump, who placed first and second in Iowa, are in the news talking about border walls and driving out undocumented immigrants, the more that Latino, Asian and other minority voters will be galvanized to get out and vote against them.
If they do, and if the GOP suffers another disastrous loss, there could be a repeat of 2012, which prompted the Republican National Committee to rethink its immigration messaging in its so-called “autopsy report” and the Senate to pass a bill that would have allowed many undocumented immigrants to become citizens.
Or, at least, that’s the hope.
“Our theory of winning is that Republicans have to get hurt in yet another general election before we have a chance to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, founder of the pro-reform group America’s Voice.
“It creates a huge opportunity for the 2016 election … for Latino and Asian voters to be decisive in a way that makes the RNC autopsy in 2017 like the 2013 report but on steroids,” he said.
There’s still a long way to go until the election. But Democrats and immigration reform supporters already have plenty of ammunition to hit any Republican candidate over the issue.
The most talked about bête noire is Trump, who began his campaign last summer by saying many Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, and since then has talked frequently about building a border wall and deporting even U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants.
“It definitely is an incredible motivator, especially because you see you or your family or your neighbors or your co-workers are under attack,” said Rocio Saenz, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, one of several groups holding naturalization drives to ensure immigrants eligible to become citizens are doing so.
Even if he were to drop out, though, Trump has already had an impact on the race. Immigration reform supporters said Cruz isn’t any better on the issue — especially since he now says his past statements on legal status for undocumented immigrants were just political maneuvering and he wants to restrict legal immigration.
Pro-reform Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who dropped his bid for president and is now supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said on MSNBC Tuesday he thinks Cruz would have a “one in 10” chance of winning against a Democrat, in part based on his move further to the right on immigration.
“The problem we have as Republicans is that we’re losing the largest and fastest-growing demographic, Hispanics, and when we ask them after 2012 why they don’t like the Republican party, it’s the immigration issue and the way we handled it,” Graham said on MSNBC.
The third-place finisher in Iowa, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has softer rhetoric on immigration but has opened himself to attacks from the left by backing away from the comprehensive immigration reform bill he worked on with Graham and others in 2013. He could move back toward the center in a general election, but if pro-immigration reform voters are engaged now, it might be too late.
“The more these candidates continue attacking and not showing any way to deal with the issues that the Latino community cares [about], the more it’s going to get our community to say we need to participate,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of the Latino group Mi Familia Vota.
Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, a board member for People For the American Way, said that it wasn’t only Trump upping engagement with Latino voters; it’s also that Democratic candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “has such a long history of engagement with the Latino community.”
Groups aimed at increasing Latino voter participation don’t want to just use anger at Republicans as a motivator, said Latino Victory Project spokeswoman Pili Tobar.
“It’s not just about getting them excited and energized to vote or participate because they’re anti-Trump or anti-Cruz, we also have to give them the opposite, which is, ‘Here is why you should vote on a positive lens.'”
In the end, Todd Schulte of the pro-reform group FWD.us said he thinks two scenarios are most plausible: Either “Democrats win on the strength of Latinos, Asian-Americans and others, and we see a 2012 on steroids dynamic, or a Republican wins by improving on the 2012 margins with these groups.”
“The third scenario — electing someone who favors rounding up and deporting every single undocumented immigrant — is not only incredibly unlikely, but their mere nomination would prove a historical disaster for the party,” he added.
Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
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