Immigrant rights groups and some top Hispanic Republicans argue that the GOP's only hope of winning over Hispanic voters is to legalize illegal immigrants — but an academic report being released Wednesday that studied the 2006 election suggests that Hispanics don't reward pro-immigration Republicans.
George Hawley, who teaches political science at the University of Houston, crunched the numbers and found that Republicans who backed immigration reform in that election didn't fare better with Hispanic voters, and in fact probably suffered overall thanks to a drop in support from white voters.
"While Republican incumbents may have any number of justifications for supporting immigration reforms that provide a pathway to citizenship, they should not expect such policies to be an electoral panacea," Mr. Hawley wrote in a report for the Center for Immigration Studies, summarizing an academic paper he is publishing in Social Science Quarterly.
The question of political peril and reward from immigration has been front-and-center after the November elections, when President Obama won an overwhelming share of the Hispanic vote en route to a fairly easy re-election victory.
Immigrant rights advocates and many members of the GOP leadership concluded that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney alienated Hispanic voters by running the most hard-line immigration campaign of any major-party nominee in modern history.
Now, those same forces argue that Republicans can recapture some Hispanic voters if they join efforts to pass a broad immigration bill that would grant illegal immigrants a path to citizenship along with stricter enforcement and a rewrite of the legal immigration system.
Indeed, some immigrant rights groups warn that focusing on enforcement will only doom the Republican Party.
But Mr. Hawley said the 2006 election shows otherwise.
He looked at incumbent Republicans running for re-election to Congress that year and their grades on immigration as determined by NumbersUSA, an organization that supports a crackdown. He then looked at exit-poll data for 1,550 Hispanic voters and 14,378 non-Hispanic whites in those members' districts.
"Whether a Republican member of Congress was a strong liberal or a strong conservative on immigration, most Latinos living in Republican districts did not vote for the incumbent in 2006," he concluded. "Thus, Republicans who take a more liberal stance on immigration should not expect to see a corresponding increase in their share of the Latino vote."
All told, the Republicans congressional candidates averaged less than 30 percent support of Hispanic voters in their districts, his study found.
Immigrant rights advocates said the political situation has changed dramatically since 2006 and that the study has been overtaken by events.
"Right now, we have a majority of Americans supporting immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, a consensus in Washington from both parties — how often can you say that about an issue -- that there is an imperative to do something about this issue, and a fair, bipartisan framework that and process that by all accounts is make serious progress towards a legislative debate in the spring," said Angela Marie Kelley, vice president for immigration at the Center for American Progress.
The latest polling does suggest a shift among voters, including Republicans, who say they are increasingly likely to embrace a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said his group arranged a study of 2008 congressional campaigns looking at 22 competitive races featuring a pro-immigration reform candidate running against a candidate calling for a crackdown. He said that in 20 of those races, the pro-immigration reform candidate won.
He questioned the wisdom of studying 2006, when he said immigration wasn't as big a mobilizing issue for Hispanics as it has become. He also warned Republicans against taking advice from crackdown groups.
"These are the guys who told Mitt Romney to embrace self-deportation. Now they're telling Republicans immigration doesn't matter with Latino voters. Anyone who follows their advice is a fool," Mr. Sharry said.
Those on both sides grapple with a number of questions about Hispanic voters.
Mr. Hawley, the study's author, argued that Hispanics aren't single-issue voters and that in general they tend to resemble Democratic voters on other issues. He said trying to win their support could end up costing Republicans among their base voters.
Some key Hispanic Republicans, though, argue that Hispanics share the stances on social issues to which most Republicans ascribe, which should make them a natural fit for the party.
Immigrant rights advocates argue that while Hispanics may not be single-issue voters, immigration has become a "threshold issue" and they tune out candidates they see as anti-immigrant.
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