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by Manuel Pastor, Los Angeles Times

Republicans are focused on the wrong set of children — and on the wrong set of voters. Instead of raising a hue and cry over the “threat” represented by thousands of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. from Central America, they should be mindful of the millions of children already here who are U.S.-born citizens of undocumented and documented immigrants.

The GOP seems to hope that calling for unaccompanied minors to be removed quickly, and for the border to be secured, will activate its base in the mid-term elections. Republicans can’t seem to resist the opportunity to talk tough on immigration: Last week, for example, Texas Governor Rick Perry proposed to station the National Guard along the Rio Grande, a strategy that seems aimed less at real border security than his presidential ambitions.

And even when Republicans talk reform, they only want to talk tough. In January the House leadership unveiled principles for reform — principles summarily rejected by Tea Party Republicans for being too generous — that suggested allowing some share of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to stay here legally but with no clear path to citizenship.

The strategy doesn’t make much sense economically — my research shows that although legalization leads to economic gains, citizenship provides its own separate boost because it opens up a wider range of employment, signals permanence to employers and shifts investments in skill development. But denying citizenship does resonate with those who think that lines should be drawn and lawbreakers should be permanently punished. Some Republicans may even be a bit more Machiavellian: Denying citizenship would also eliminate the possibility of 11 million new voters, many of whom might vote Democratic.

That isn’t necessarily the case, of course. Surveys conducted by the polling firm Latino Decisions indicate that 45 percent of undocumented immigrants would be open to voting Republican if the party were to lead on immigration reform. And although Mitt Romney’s 2012 call for immigrants to self-deport shrank his share of the Latino vote to 27 percent George W. Bush, who took a stab at reform while in office, won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.

The Republicans may simply be blind to the demographic group they should be paying attention to: 4.5 million U.S.-born citizen children of undocumented immigrants. This population will age, gain the right to vote and then reward or punish those who have done right by their parents and their relatives. In a report I co-wrote for the Center for American Progress, we estimate that over the next five presidential elections, as these children come of voting age in waves, they have the potential to cast nearly 11 million votes.

The math is even more foreboding for the GOP than that. Expanding the future voter pool to take into account U.S.-born children of all immigrants — those with and without authorization — we find 15.4 million young people who will have the potential to cast 41 million votes in the next 20 years of presidential elections. Regardless of their parents’ status, most of these young people are sensitive to the heated rhetoric of the immigration debates.

Why should politicians sacrifice an advantage now to affect voters they still have a chance to influence later? Because voters remember. It was exactly 20 years ago that Republican Governor Pete Wilson promoted Proposition 187 in California, a measure aimed at denying benefits, including education, to undocumented residents. That stance insured that the GOP would wind up where it is today, with no Republican statewide officeholders in a state famous for producing two Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

This helps explain why the Obama administration is likely to move forward with executive action that could reduce deportations. The impetus for that and for a more balanced approach to the current border crisis may be humanitarian, but the political calculus is still clear: a cohort of voters who want to see their parents, relatives and other immigrants, including the children now crossing the border, treated as human beings and not political footballs.

There is some goodwill on these issues in the GOP. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, among others, have been sincere supporters of rational and humane reform — although even these voices are now willing to stir passions about the current border crisis. That’s a losing proposition: The crisis of unaccompanied minors entering the country will end — the influx already seems to be slowing — but the tone and tenor of the debate about immigration will linger, and its political impacts could last a generation.

Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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