It was a surprise to no one that Mitt Romney received just 27 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 election. The hallmark of Romney’s immigration solution was “self-deportation,” and Latinos were not too keen on that strategy.
Today Romney’s idea sounds downright quaint in comparison to Donald Trump’s proposed immigration reform. Under a Trump administration all undocumented persons would be deported, no exceptions. And Trump has not been shy about adding insult to policy injury. Most recently, a 2015 Latino version of the Willie Horton ad was released, portraying Latino immigrants as criminal dregs.
At the end of August a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that more than 80 percent of Latinos have a negative view of Donald Trump. Trump has been anything if not consistent in his bashing of Mexican immigrants, and many of the other GOP candidates have fallen all over themselves trying to match him. So the 82 percent disapproval rate should be viewed as the ceiling—single-digit support for Trump or any other Republican candidate among Latinos will not be surprising.
But how did this happen? Not too long ago was the serious prospect of the GOP matching Democrats in Latino outreach. In the 2000 presidential election, the RNC outspent the DNC in Latino outreach by three to one and in 2004 Republican President George W. Bush received 44 percent of the Latino vote.
Latino ad guru Lionel Sosa recalls George W. Bush setting out three specific Latino goals: “1. I want to get the highest percent of the Latino vote of any Republican presidential candidate, 2. I want to feature Hispanics as equal Americans and as people who make this country stronger, prouder, and better, and 3. I want to leave a roadmap for every other Republican to follow in the future.”
Following his re-election, where he received the highest Latino support of any Republican candidate, President Bush pushed for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Bipartisan support was growing in Congress—until a faction in the Republican Party began to push back, culminating in what came to be known as the Sensenbrenner Immigration bill. The bill criminalized undocumented immigrants and focused on an enforcement-only approach to immigration. The legislation passed the House in 2005 and stalled in the Senate.
The Sensenbrenner bill not only stopped the GOP-Latino courtship in its tracks, it also mobilized Latinos. The immigration marches across the country in the spring of 2006 were a direct response to the Sensenbrenner bill. Six years’ worth of courting the Latino electorate began to unravel.
The 2008 presidential election further distanced the GOP from Latinos when Republican presidential candidate John McCain decided to take a hard line on immigration control. McCain, who had had a history of seeking a comprehensive immigration solution and has recently returned to that vision, took an anti-immigrant sabbatical during the 2008 presidential campaign. At the same time then-candidate Barack Obama aggressively courted the Latino vote and received more than two-thirds of the Latino vote.
The GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric continued to ratchet up with the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070. This law drew on the Sensenbrenner bill that criminalized the presence of undocumented persons. Arizona’s new immigration law also obligated law enforcement officials to determine a person’s legal status during a lawful stop. The prospect of rampant racial and ethnic profiling enraged the Latino community and further alienated Latinos from the GOP-backed SB1070.
And Arizona was not the exception. Within months, other states put forward other similar bills. Anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric reached a fever pitch in the Republican Party during the 2010 election. Moving into the 2012 presidential election the GOP was still in the immigration restrictionist camp. The Republican primaries were a contest of who could be tougher on immigration—from alligators in the Rio Grande to electric fences and self-deportation.
The result? President Barack Obama walked away with 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.
The losses rattled the Republican Party. In response the party huddled and performed what Reince Priebus famously called an “autopsy.” The takeaway was that there needed to be more inclusion—and that inclusion needed to start with the passage of immigration reform.
Following the autopsy report Republican senators joined their Democratic counterparts in drafting a comprehensive immigration plan. The Gang of Eight successfully passed comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate but it died in the Republican led House. In fact, the Gang of 8’s bill was never even brought up for consideration.
While the comprehensive immigration reform died in Congress, it seemed that the GOP would still make good on its intent to reach out to Latinos. The candidacies of immigration moderates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio seemed to signal that the anti-immigrant vitriol of earlier years would disappear.
But Trump has taken all of the oxygen out of the room and has come to dominate the Republican brand through his poll numbers and media attention. He has single-handedly shifted the entire field to the far right on immigration—Ted Cruz is now agreeing to do away with birthright citizenship, and Jeb Bush, once considered moderate on this issue, used the term anchor babies in an effort to gulp political oxygen.
At this point, the Republican Party is at a fork in the road. One path, the Trump path, leads to a severing of ties between the GOP and Latinos for a long time. The second path leads the GOP back to the tenets set out by George W. Bush, that treats Latinos with respect and recognizes that they make this country stronger and better. Within the next couple of months we will know what path the GOP has chosen.
Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, Ph.D. is a political scientist and a professor at the University of Texas Center for Mexican American Studies.