Immigration Policy and the Founding of the Republican Party

December 19. 2012 1:07PM

By Gil Medina, contributor

In a prior article, I discussed the future of the Republican Party and the daunting demographic challenges it will face in the decades ahead. I pointed to exit polls that indicated that a key to President Obama's re-election victory was winning overwhelming margins of the African-American, Hispanic and Asian vote.

Romney garnered 59% of the white vote: A greater percentage than the 56% that Ronald Reagan received in 1980 and the same as George H.W Bush did in 1988 (59%). Romney's margin among white voters almost tied the record 60% that Dwight Eisenhower received in 1952. And still it was not enough.

My thesis in my previous article was that a 60% margin among white voters, without significant inroads with African-American, Hispanic and Asian voters may never be enough for national Republican candidates to succeed. This is so because of a seismic demographic shift that is transforming the US.

The 2010 Census estimated that 50.5 million Hispanics live in the United States. Hispanics account for 16.3% of the total U.S. population. This population, which numbered 35.3 million in 2000, grew by 43% over the decade. The U.S. population as a whole grew by only 9.7% in that period of time consequently, the Hispanic population growth accounted for most of the nation's overall growth (56% of the growth) from 2000 to 2010. Hispanics constituted 10 percent of the voters who went to the polls in 2012.

Between the 2000 Census and 2010 Census, the number of people identifying as Asian or Asian plus another race rose 45.6%: A total of 17.3 million people or 5.6% of the US population. Asians accounted for 3% of the 2012 electorate – up from 2% in 2008

The Democratic Party hold on the African-American vote has been strong and seemingly unshakeable. But I believe that with a vision that addresses the aspirations of African-Americans, the GOP can expand its support among a constituency that at one time enjoyed strong bonds with the party.

And the Republican Party has demonstrated an ability to compete for the Hispanic vote: In 2000 President George W. Bush received 35% of the Hispanic vote and then in 2004 increased his margin to 44%. In contrast, Mitt Romney received a smaller margin of Hispanic votes than any presidential candidate in the past 16 years.

I believe that this is so because the Republican Party has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by a neo-Nativist element that has gained traction in the past two decades. Nativism is a form of national, ethnic, racial and/or religious intolerance of people or ideas that are perceived as "foreign" and therefore corrosive of the "national" culture. It expresses itself as a reservation about the desirability or suitability for citizenship of those suspected of being unable or unwilling to function as productive, loyal and patriotic citizens.

In the United States, the term Nativism was first used in connection with political and social movements that proliferated between 1830 and 1925. It expressed hostility against newly arrived immigrants who did not fit the mold of a "real" American. Nativism called upon "real" Americans to protect the nation from these "foreign" interlopers. Nativism continues to impact our political life in the form of anti-immigrant and "English-Only" movements.

The U.S. population expanded significantly between the 1820s and 1860s and, not surprisingly, widespread anti-immigrant sentiment fueled Nativism. This sentiment found its most impactful expression with the creation in the 1850s of the Order of the Star Spangled Banner known popularly as the "Know Nothings." The secretive group admonished its members to say they "knew nothing" about the organization. The roots of the Know-Nothing movement lay in the fear of immigrants in general and Roman Catholics in particular.

Based in New York State, the group recruited members nationwide. The Know Nothings' appeal was largely due to their willingness to blame immigration for the structural changes forged by the Industrial Revolution that seemed to make skilled work obsolete with technology, assembly lines and mass production of goods.

In was in this cauldron that the Republican Party was forged. The major impetus for the creation of a new party was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. With the exception of Missouri, it prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30' latitude. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed slave or free status to be decided in the territories by "popular sovereignty" much as many opponents of gay rights today wish to allow the civil rights of gays to be decided by the states in state elections.

The elements coming together to form the new Republican Party included northern Whigs opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, northern Democrats who opposed slavery and the Free-Soil Party which formed in New York State where the Democratic Party divided into contending factions: the Barnburners, who were strongly opposed to slavery, and the Hunkers, who were neutral or supportive of slavery.

Finally, and ironically, the Know-Nothing movement supported the Republican Party. They were opposed to the spread of slavery because they did not want to compete against unpaid labor in the lands being settled in the West. They were not the champions of African-Americans, slave or free.

But German immigrants who formed an important voting bloc in the mid-west opposed BOTH slavery AND anti-immigration policies. They played a key role in nominating and electing the Republican Party's first president, Abraham Lincoln, and in molding a more tolerant racial, ethnic and migration platform for the new party.

In 2012, the focus of Nativism has shifted from Roman Catholics, specifically, to all immigrant groups and particularly Hispanics and Asians. It is no wonder that the GOP, the party that was the greatest source of hope for African-Americans, both free and slave, and which found a way to embrace the aspirations of immigrants managed, in 2012, to achieve such an improbable outcome: Losing 93% of the African-American vote, 71% of the Hispanic vote, and 73% of the Asian vote.

Opposition to the "Dream Act" by many Republicans made it almost impossible for the party to appeal to young, Hispanic voters. The Dream Act sought to allow immigrants brought to the United States by undocumented parents as children, to continue their education into college and beyond and ultimately, to have a path to citizenship: In other words, to achieve the promise of the American Dream. It is the most benign form of immigration reform.

While serving as a state legislator in Illinois, Lincoln wrote a letter condemning the Know-Nothing Party. "I am not a Know-Nothing…. As a nation we began by declaring 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it, 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, 'all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

The Republican Party desperately needs courageous leaders, like the great Abraham Lincoln, who can stand up to some of our traditional constituencies who seem to believe that in order to be free themselves, they must deny others the promise of the American Dream. Like Lincoln, we need to stand up as a Party and proclaim that civil rights are "inalienable" and should not be subjected to the whim of popular sovereignty.

As a committed Republican, I will continue to vote for the party and to toil in the vineyards for its candidates. All I ask of the GOP is to lead as Lincoln beseeched us to do in his second inaugural speech, "With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."


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