As a weather vane of popular Republican Party opinion, Sean Hannity is without peer. And it was Hannity, two and a half months ago, who first told Republicans to take a dive on immigration and pass some kind of reform bill.
“We’ve got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether,” he said on Nov. 8, two hard days after the re-election of Barack Obama. Not “rid of immigration,” but rid of “the issue” of immigration. The issue had scared 71 percent of Hispanic voters over to the president. “I think you control the border first,” said Hannity. “You create a pathway for those people that are here—you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on.”
That word—“evolved”—is conservative media code for sold out in the hopes of a brunch invite from Arianna Huffington. Ten years earlier, in his airbrushed jeremiad Let Freedom Ring (not on Kindle, but available for $0.01 before shipping), Hannity condemned the liberals who “spuriously contend that opposing illegal immigration means opposing all immigration.” He printed the numbers of year-2000 immigrants from Iran and “Afghanistan, then controlled by the Taliban,” to make a point of some kind.
Hannity’s agita about immigrants was part terror-panic, part culture-panic. He wanted Republicans to win elections, and immigration made it harder. That could be proven by two sets of numbers. In 1980, when he defeated Jimmy Carter and destroyed the Democratic Party’s national coalition, Ronald Reagan won the white vote by 20 points. In 2012, when famed car-elevator enthusiast Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, he also won the white vote. He won it by 20 points. But in 32 years, the Hispanic share of the electorate quintupled from 2 percent to 10 percent.
The reason, as any demographics-obsessed conservative could tell you, was the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Passed by a Democratic House, signed by Reagan, it legalized 2.8 million mostly-Hispanic border-crossers. The new Americans brought their families up from Mexico. They had kids. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s Hispanic birthrate rose from 3.2 children per woman in 1987 to 4.4 in 1991. And 21 years later, Reagan’s own California had become a Democratic landslide state. John McCain’s Arizona gave Democrats five of nine available House seats. Sen. Jeff Flake only barely won his 2012 race, because 18 percent of voters were Hispanic, and they went for the Democrat by 46 points.
If they’re going to pass any kind of legalization plan, Republicans have to answer two questions they’ve been putting off. Are they willing to add millions of potential Hispanic voters? And if they are—if they are willing to pass some McCain-Rubio-Schumer bill—can they win these people over?
This week, the most prominent Republicans are the ones saying yes. “Regardless of the political benefits to one party or another,” said Sen. Flake in a statement, “moving ahead on immigration reform is good policy.” He’s a member of the Senate “Group of Eight,” (I prefer “Octogang” but it hasn’t caught on) and he can envision a near future where Hispanic voters don’t see Republican and immediately think “show me your papers” or “Joe Arpaio.” If that happens, they can win them again. Win enough of them, anyway.
“I’ve heard a lot of conservatives say, ‘Hispanics are pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and they should be Republicans,’ ” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime pro-reform conduit between business groups and Republicans. “That’s good. But you can't go to someone's house, knock on the door, and say: ‘I want to talk to you about all the things we agree on. While we talk, you won't mind if Igor here grabs your grandmother, who’s 87 years old and has lived here forever, and drags her across the border 1,000 miles away? Oh, and we’ll grab your friends from school and drag them out, too, because we have such a great time together.’ If you remove the threat of self-deportation, it becomes a completely different conversation.”