CARLSBAD, Calif.—Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman urged his party Thursday to oppose rising anti-immigrant sentiments in the debate over border security and illegal immigration, suggesting that the GOP risks being on the wrong side of history and electoral politics alike if it embraces an exclusionary message.
Appearing before the Republican Governors Association, Mehlman waded into an issue that political analysts say threatens to rip apart the Republican coalition and inflict long-term damage to the party’s hopes of expanding its appeal to Latinos and other minorities. A top political hand to President Bush, Mehlman followed the White House lead in treading a middle path on the issue: He issued a strong call for tougher enforcement of immigration laws but extolled the contributions of immigrants and denounced those who have sought to close the country to foreigners.
“Throughout our history, there have always been Americans who believed that coming to these shores was a right reserved only for them and their ancestors, but not for others,” Mehlman said. Citing Republicans and Democrats from earlier eras who had expressed anti-immigrant prejudice, he added: “Ladies and gentlemen, that was wrong then and those who argue that now are wrong today.”
With Latinos now the fastest-growing segment of the population, Republicans can ill afford to offend them with immigration policies that are seen as punitive. GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who participated in a panel discussion after Mehlman’s speech, noted that in California, a politician now can win 70 percent of the white vote and still lose an election because of the state’s growing diversity.
“America is a nation of immigrants and America is a nation of laws, and we must remember the ‘and’ between the two,” Mehlman told the governors. Portraying most immigrants as hardworking and law-abiding, Mehlman said that Bush recognizes that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.”