After President Barack Obama dominated Mitt Romney among Latino voters in the 2012 election, winning the fast-growing demographic by a massive 71- to 27-percent margin, Republicans are finally acknowledging that they have a serious problem among Latinos. Romney and the GOP seemed to go out of their way to drive these voters away during the campaign, promising to use Arizona’s controversial “show me your papers” law as a national model, end bilingual education, and veto the DREAM Act, among other far-right positions that ended up costing them on Election Day.
In an effort to mitigate the damage, retiring Republican senators Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas have introduced the “ACHIEVE Act.” The bill is designed to be an alternative to the popular DREAM Act, which would provide residency and an eventual path to citizenship to certain immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and complete a four-year college education or two years of military service.
The ACHIEVE Act would allow those who arrived in the United States before the age of 14 to obtain visas that would provide them with legal residency after completing schooling or military service — but, crucially, would not provide any path to citizenship. For many Hispanic leaders, this is a deal-breaker.
At a Wednesday press conference, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus slammed Kyl and Hutchison’s bill. “The problem with the ACHIEVE Act is it does not achieve the dream,” said New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) concurred, saying the proposal was “too little, too late.”
When confronted about his bill’s lack of a path to citizenship, Kyl dismissed the complaints by claiming that young immigrants could marry their way into citizenship:
“Realistically, young people frequently get married. In this country, the biggest marriage pool are U.S. citizens. A U.S. citizen can petition for a spouse to become a citizen in a very short time,” Kyl claimed. “I don’t think it’s any big secret that a lot of people who might participate in this program are going to have a very quick path to citizenship, if that’s the path they choose.”
In addition to being factually incorrect, Kyl’s “solution” is unlikely to improve the perception that his party is not sympathetic to the concerns of the Latino community.
In an editorial in The Hill, DREAM Action Coalition Director Cesar Vargas outlined further issues with the Republican proposal:
Indeed, the ACHIEVE Act complicates an issue that the Republican senators have admitted is “a strong starting point” and “a humanitarian issue.” For example, for Dreamers interested in serving this country, a strange visa such as the “W-1” status does not currently let someone join the military voluntarily, so unless they also amend the law to allow such persons to enlist, the ACHIEVE Act won’t help much.
There are also signs that Latino voters will share these concerns. The ACHIEVE Act is similar to reform proposed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in June; according to a Latino Decisions poll, only 46 percent of Latinos supported Rubio’s bill, with 44 percent opposing it. Those numbers look horrible compared to the 87 percent to 10 percent approval split of the original DREAM Act.
Furthermore, when asked to choose between the two proposals, Latino voters favored the DREAM Act over Rubio’s proposal by a tremendous 82- to 13-percent margin. In other words, if Republicans hope that Hutchison and Kyl’s bill will solve their immigration problem, they are in for an unpleasant surprise.
With all this in mind, the ACHIEVE Act appears to be dead on arrival; according to Texas senator John Cornyn, the incoming Republican whip, the bill is unlikely to pass before Hutchison and Kyl leave the Senate.
As Matthew Yglesias points out in Slate, however, even if Republicans do close the gap on immigration, they will probably continue to struggle with Latino voters:
The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even [sic] poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act.
If the Republican Party wants to solve its problem with Latino voters, it will need to do far more than offer a compelling immigration policy. And, unfortunately for the GOP, Hutchison and Kyl’s Achieve Act doesn’t even accomplish that.