President Obama and his political aides privately acknowledge that the government’s decision to sue Arizona over its new immigration law is helping to fuel an anti-immigration fervor that could benefit some Republicans in elections this fall.
But White House officials have concluded that, over the long term, the Republicans’ get-tough message is a major political miscalculation. They predict it will ultimately alienate millions of Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.
West Wing strategists argue that the president’s call for legislation that acknowledges the role of immigrants and goes beyond punishing undocumented workers will help cement a permanent political relationship between Democrats and Hispanics–much as civil rights and voting rights legislation did for the party and African Americans in the 1960s.
As a result, although the president is unlikely to press for comprehensive immigration reform this year, he has urged his allies to keep up the pressure on Republican lawmakers.
“Look: The Republicans, if you do the math, cannot be successful as a national party if they continue to alienate Latinos,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with White House thinking on the issue.
Last month, Obama invited a small group of influential Latino activists to the White House and reassured them that he is committed to reform. But to succeed, he said, they had to stop their public complaining about how slowly he was moving and instead direct their fire at Republicans.
The activists came away from their presidential audience still convinced that he could be doing more to push the issue. But their discussion with Obama–and a lengthier one with adviser Valerie Jarrett after he left the room–made one thing clear to them: The White House plans to use the immigration debate to punish the GOP and aggressively seek the Latino vote in 2012.
Advisers to the president say his long-standing position on immigration is not motivated by presidential politics. But in a few years, they predict, the Latino population will surge in “red” states, where residents have traditionally voted for Republicans in presidential contests. States such as Texas, which has been a GOP stronghold for a generation, could become permanently “purple” tossups if Republicans do not repair their image.
Lionel Sosa, who has advised Republican candidates including George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) on Latino issues, said the GOP needs to be careful about how its policies are being received in the Hispanic community.
Ruy Teixeira, who studies Hispanic demographics for the liberal Center for American Progress, said the growth in the number of Hispanics in states including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Texas will give Democrats a significant edge in 2012 unless Republicans find a way to change the way they are perceived.