Obama tightens the immigration knot on Republicans

President Obama has skilfully identified immigration as an issue that Republicans will struggle with. Shutterstock

For an American president, the first inaugural address sets the stage for the four years to follow. The second inaugural address, on the other hand, focuses on a much longer legacy.

Barack Obama’s speech on Monday made it clear he hopes his legacy will be a new era of Democratic dominance in America.

As countless commentators have noted, Obama’s speech was a vigorous defence of liberalism. The first half of the eighteen-minute address sounded like an extended rebuttal of Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural, in which the Republican standard-bearer declared,

“Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Obama countered: “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.”

Yet the president’s speech laid the groundwork not only for a liberal future, but for a Democratic one. Obama spoke about women’s rights and black civil rights. He made history when he used the word “gay”, a first for inaugural addresses. It was his words on immigration, however, that made it clear he had a new Democratic majority in mind.

The 2012 election had many stories, but perhaps the most important was the demographic one: as America’s population becomes increasingly non-white, the Democrats have assembled a “coalition of the ascendant”. The Republicans, on the other hand, have an ever-whiter, and ever-smaller, base. Unless it attracts minority voters, the GOP will spend the next generation out of power.

Since the election, Republicans have made it clear they’re eying the Hispanic vote. “If Republicans do not do better in the Hispanic community,” said Ted Cruz, a newly-elected Tea Party Republican senator from Texas, “in a few short years Republicans will no longer be the majority party in our state… If that happens, no Republican will ever again win the White House.”

At his inauguration, Obama sought to block Republican efforts to woo Hispanics. “Our journey is not complete,” he insisted, “until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.”

Nor would it be complete, he continued, “until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” The sentiment carried great weight after an election in which Republicans’ most welcoming immigration stance was Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation.”

Nor was the inaugural address the president’s only attempt to tighten the bonds between the Democratic Party and Hispanic voters. Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor, an Obama appointee and the first Hispanic justice, delivered Vice-President Joe Biden’s oath of office. Richard Blanco read the inaugural poem, the first Hispanic (and first openly gay man) to do so. The benediction came from Cuban-born Luis Leon, a Pedro Pan refugee.

Leon served as a reminder of just how much the GOP’s demographic problem is one of its own making. In 2005, Leon became the first Latino to offer the inaugural benediction – thanks to George W. Bush, who had just won re-election. That year Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote, far more than Romney’s 27% in 2012.

What happened? Bush, a Texan, carefully cultivated the Hispanic vote with his relatively liberal immigration views and his “compassionate conservatism”. But in late 2005, conservative Republicans introduced a draconian immigration bill that levied hefty fines and prison sentences on undocumented workers. This triggered wide-scale immigration rights protests that elicited troubling remarks from conservatives, who called the protests “ominous” and “repellent”. Hispanic support for the Republican Party plummeted.

Reminding Hispanics of that history helps solidify their ties to the Democratic Party. But putting immigration reform front-and-centre also wedges an already-fractured GOP. The party remains split between immigration hardliners and those who see reform as the only way to heal the rift between Hispanic voters and Republicans.

Leading the charge for reform is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has moved left on the issue and now shares much common ground with President Obama and the Democrats. As a front-runner for his party’s nomination in 2016, Rubio holds sway on immigration. In the process, though, he’s making enemies among some conservatives. In working with Democrats, Rubio may very well find himself with little support among the Republican base.

Four years ago, Barack Obama talked of immigration in personal terms: his father was Kenyan, so Obama understood the experience of first-generation Americans. On Monday, he spoke in much broader language, tying the immigrant dream not only to the nation’s founding but to its future. In making immigrants – both citizens and undocumented residents – central to his vision of a liberal America, he sought to strengthen the bonds between key voting blocs and the Democratic Party. If those bonds endure, that vision is likely to become a reality.

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