When Tina Benkiser took the stage at the Texas Republican Convention on June 2, she had immigration on her mind. Benkiser, the state GOP chairwoman, drew the biggest applause of the convention’s first day by explicitly stating what many Republicans were thinking: that illegal immigration isn’t simply a law-enforcement issue, it’s a challenge to the social fiber and patriotic spirit of America.
In America’s first two centuries, Benkiser said, immigrants “came here to be Americans. And they learned to speak English!”
In 2006, the immigration debate spilled onto the streets of major American cities, thanks largely to a highly controversial congressional bill that proposed fencing up to 700 miles along the United States-Mexico border, requiring employers to verify workers’ legal status through electronic means, and creating Draconian criminal penalties for undocumented immigrants and people who aid them in their efforts.
In early April, San Antonio high-school students at Lanier, Judson, Clark, Highlands and other schools staged orchestrated walkouts to protest the congressional bill. On April 10, a day that featured protests in more than 100 cities across the United States, an estimated 18,000 San Antonians marched from Milam Park to the Federal Building in solidarity with undocumented immigrants.
While the provocative words of Benkiser and other leading Republicans surely galvanized the party’s ultra-conservative base, they also damaged the GOP’s ongoing effort to bring Latinos into the fold. Given the Republican Party’s lackluster performance in this year’s midterm elections, the GOP’s border gambit seems to have backfired, at least temporarily.