Every so often, a national issue — in this case, immigration reform — has huge ramifications locally here in the North Country.
Over the last decade, dairy farms across the region have turned more and more to undocumented workers to keep their operations going.
The labor shortage in agriculture, and the need for some kind of accord that allows more foreign workers to enter the US legally, became a major issue in the 21st district congressional race. (Remember Donald Hassig’s call to toss the bums out?)
It happens that immigration reform is also moving to the center of the debate over how Republicans can revive their political fortunes. Far from our part of the country, rapidly-shifting demographics are forcing the GOP to rethink their relationship to Hispanic voters.
The New Yorker has a fascinating article pointing to the fact that the Republican Party’s biggest “red” state — I’m referring, of course, to Texas — is moving rapidly toward a future where black, white and Asian Americans will be minorities, while Hispanics will be the majority population.
Unless conservative politicians can appeal better to that community, their future appears increasingly bleak.
“If Texas is bright blue, [Republican presidential candidates] can’t get to two-seventy electoral votes,” newly elected Republican Senator Ted Cruz told the magazine.
“The Republican Party would cease to exist. We would become like the Whig Party. Our kids and grandkids would study how this used to be a national political party. ‘They had Conventions, they nominated Presidential candidates. They don’t exist anymore.’ ”
Conservatives in Texas are leading the party back toward some kind of immigration reform effort, pushing for guest worker programs, and attempting to de-emphasize the kind of “big fence” and “self-deportation” initiatives that have made the GOP so unpopular among Hispanics.
But the GOP clearly needs a leader with the gravitas and credibility to shape the party’s future thinking on immigration, someone popular enough in white rural America to shift the deeply-rooted tea party aversion to comprehensive reform.
I wonder if that person might not be George W. Bush.
Bush is currently languishing in the political wilderness and is widely disliked by Americans for his handling of the economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was invisible during the 2012 campaign.
But Bush had a stellar record when it came to outreach to and relations with the Hispanic community. In 2004, Bush captured 44% of the Hispanic vote.
Mitt Romney’s support from that community — which has grown significantly over the the last decade — had plummeted to under 30%.
That collapse of appeal is unsurprising. Romney used an anti-immigrant posture to appeal to his party’s far-right wing, as he fought to secure the nomination.
By contrast, Bush’s approach included supporting bi-lingual education, backing a road to citizenship for undocumented workers and making sure that basic government services are provided to foreign laborers.
During his second term in the White House, he pushed for a comprehensive immigration reform measure.
White conservatives in his party shot the measure down, attacking the idea of “amnesty” for “illegal aliens” with rhetoric that was often venomous. If not racist, then xenophobic.
But it is Bush’s position which now appears not only practical and pragmatic, but also politically prescient. The former Texas governor understood that there was — and is — no holding back the demographic tide.
It appears that the growing Hispanic population has already put New Mexico and Nevada out of reach for Republican presidential contenders. Arizona may not be far behind.
So perhaps it’s time for the former president to emerge from political exile to offer his party much-needed leadership on this issue.
Bush still has plenty of credibility on the small-town “street” in America, and he is largely immune to attacks from right-wing shouters like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage.
Helping the GOP get right with the new, modern America would be a major accomplishment for Bush, one that might restore a significant part of his political legitimacy and give him a more enduring legacy.
It would also be a major boon for the workers and farmers in places like the North Country who are currently struggling to survive in a gray-market economy that turns far too many hard-working people into criminals.