One thing was missed in Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary: Conservatives embraced a pro-amnesty candidate without batting an eyelash. This should come as a wake-up call to those who've been pushing a hard-line anti-illegal immigrant position in the Republican Party.
Granted, Gingrich didn't spend a lot of time discussing his position, which favors amnesty for those illegal immigrants who have been here for a long time, have deep family and community ties, and have paid taxes and avoided breaking other laws. But that's the point. He didn't have to spend a lot of time defending his position because so few conservatives cared.
Now Gingrich seems poised to win another Southern primary: Florida. The latest polls show him within a few percentage points of beating Mitt Romney again (and at least one poll shows him up by 5 points). Whether or not a Gingrich win is a good thing for Republican prospects in the fall, it could help lay the groundwork for future Republican victories by defusing an issue that is guaranteed to alienate the fastest-growing segment of the voting population.
Like other voters, most Hispanics care a lot more about jobs than they do about immigration. Still, they are turned off by candidates who portray illegal immigrants as criminal invaders who want a handout from U.S. taxpayers. Republicans have damaged their ability to woo an important constituency by insisting on a punitive approach to illegal immigration. In this election alone, it could cost Republicans key states critical to winning the presidency: Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
Worse, in future elections, the perceived anti-Hispanic bias in the GOP could deprive the party of its edge in presidential elections in Texas and Arizona, where Hispanics already account for about a third of the population. Gingrich might keep that from happening.
Unlike Gov. Rick Perry, who was unable to articulate his own pro-immigrant stance, Gingrich is ideally suited to move the GOP toward a more politically viable — not to mention humane — immigration policy. Polls show that most Americans are opposed to deporting the 11 million illegal immigrants who already reside in the U.S. And Mitt Romney's position — which is indistinguishable from the radical anti-immigrant groups' — is patently wrong. Romney believes that if we make life difficult enough on these people they will "self-deport". Nothing could further from the truth.
No matter how tough life in the U.S. is for an illegal immigrant, it is still better than returning home. Gingrich has called Romney's position an "Obama-level fantasy." He's right; and the sooner Republicans wake up to the reality, the better for the party and the country.
Gingrich is not simply pandering to the Hispanic vote on this issue. He understands that immigrants — even those who've come here illegally — are an important part of America's economic success. They don't take Americans' jobs; they create more jobs by keeping otherwise unviable industries in the U.S. Without immigrant labor, we'd have no agricultural or meat industry. Without an immigrant work ethic, our service industry would be a lot less productive and would cost customers a great deal more. And every immigrant worker spends money in his or her community that redounds to the benefit of native-born Americans in those same communities. And Gingrich understands that immigrants do much more than help the economy; they reaffirm American exceptionalism.
If he wanted to, Gingrich could help educate Republican voters on these facts. Better yet, he could talk about something that politicians in both parties often ignore: namely, the need to assimilate newcomers.
Every immigrant backlash in our nation's history — and there have been many, including movements against Germans, Eastern and Southern Europeans, even the Irish — has been driven by a fear that those coming to our shores would never become fully American. Newt Gingrich's amnesty proposal acknowledges that some illegal immigrants have already become Americans in every sense but a legal one — and his proposal to embrace them offers the best hope to the GOP to turn around its image as the anti-immigrant party.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.