It was galling to watch Republican pundits in the wake of the election, sitting before TV cameras treating Latino-Americans as if they were slow-witted children. Like parents who spell out “s-e-x” in the hope that their kids cannot yet spell, consultants told interviewers that the Republican party needs to repackage itself to lure in Latino voters—for instance, by reluctantly and belatedly granting them what Democrats have long been offering with both hands: immigration reform. These party operatives acted as if “those people” they hoped to win over could not possibly be watching—or perhaps as if they didn’t know enough English to understand. What is worse, they seemed to accept the Obama principle that Americans are programmed to vote along ethnic or racial lines. This Balkan concept of politics is highly dangerous in a diverse country like ours—and thankfully, it doesn’t prevail, as Obama’s hefty share of the white vote testifies.

American Latinos are highly diverse—hailing from more than a dozen different countries, with widely divergent interests and perspectives. Some are conservative Catholics, some Pentecostalists, still others religious “seekers” torn between a stale local parish and the boisterous megachurch down the street. And many are thoroughly secularized. For better or worse, they’re modern people. It’s patronizing and false to assume that Latinos are a solid voting bloc that wants simply to vote a collective racial or economic interest. The Democrats already assume that, taking for granted that they can snag “the Latino vote” by offering generous welfare benefits and lax immigration policies (or, as the embittered Mitt Romney foolishly dubbed them, government “gifts”). Now Republicans who accept the “gift” theory want to jump in and outbid the Democrats. Such politics won’t work, and they don’t deserve to.

There are several things conservatives could address to remove the artificial barriers that repel Latino voters. And there are some issues of broad interest to many Latino voters which Republicans should address. I’d like to lay them out, and offer a mode of outreach which rests on core principles that millions of American Latinos (like other Americans) share with conservatives:

  • The border with Mexico. Any sovereign country needs to control its borders. Currently, the U.S./Mexican border is controlled—by drug gangs, human traffickers, American-based gun smugglers, and other criminal elements who are ravaging whole cities throughout Mexico. No American, Latino or otherwise, should favor this chaos. It is mostly Latinos who suffer as a result—who are gunned down by narco-terrorists, packed into Mack trucks to suffocate, or left in the desert to die. If America is ever to manage a comprehensive reform of immigration, securing the border must come first. If that means fencing it off and patrolling it, then that needs to happen, for the safety of citizens on either side, and would-be migrants themselves. No path to citizenship can (or should) be passed until this is accomplished. To offer an amnesty without it would simply invite millions more would-be migrants to risk their lives. We would be advertising the fact that using coyotes works. Thousands more will die in the desert.
  • Economic exploitation. Americans who favor mass-removal of immigrants, or even “self-deportation” rarely admit the central fact that draws most migrants north: These people want to work, and they will work cheaply, sometimes in dangerous jobs, for wages Americans won’t accept, in businesses owned by Americans. So who is the true culprit here—the hard-working, underpaid laborer, or the well-off American who’s violating U.S. labor and safety laws? We need to end this underground economy, where workers are treated like they were in 1870, and extend the protection of law to every worker in America. That means (as part  of immigration reform) imposing controls on employers, improving and making mandatory a program like E-Verify, by which employers can (in minutes) check the legal status of any new employee. They will have no more excuses for their sweatshops. This was the feature of the 1986 amnesty that broke down—thanks to complaints from businessmen to the Reagan Administration.
  • Nativist rhetoric and hypocrisy. As a prolife activist, I move in conservative circles. Sometimes I hear otherwise humane people—who raise money to save the unborn babies of Latino mothers—switch gears to speaking of immigrants as if they were aliens landing from some hostile planet. I have met people who pray to Mexican saints like Miguel Pro speak from the other side of their mouth about “invasion” and “reconquista.” I even met dogged supporters of mass-deportation who employ illegal workers—explaining this away as “a reality of doing business.” Conservatives need more integrity and a deeper sense of common, human solidarity with the people whose actions have left them trapped in the underground economy. It has been a long time since any of us have used rhetoric like “welfare queens” to describe impoverished Americans. It is long past time for discussions of immigration to reflect a similar courtesy and decency. Those are, after all, conservative values.
  • An orderly path to citizenship. Immigrants who came here illegally have certainly benefited from America’s order and prosperity. They have gained untold opportunities, used public schools and hospitals, and sometimes collected government benefits. But Americans have also benefited from their presence. Employers have prospered using cheap labor, consumers have enjoyed lower prices, and countless Americans have had their houses built, grounds maintained, meals cooked, and children or elders cared for, by workers who did not enjoy the protection of law. Large elements of America’s market economy used these people to evade the costs imposed by the New Deal. We have enjoyed for decades a two-tier system: 21st century labor and safety laws for legal workers, and 19th century “robber baron” conditions for illegal immigrants. As we impose order on the border and in the workplace, we must acknowledge the fact that the people already here are not some looming threat to national security, or a tumor to be removed. They are neighbors, co-workers, friends, fellow parishioners, even family members of millions of Americans. They have earned through sweat equity a place at our national table, and it’s time to bring them up out of the underground economy. The way to do that is to offer a path to citizenship to otherwise law-abiding migrants—as the final phase of a comprehensive approach to controlling the border and enforcing our workplace laws.

Essentially, conservatives must be truer to ourselves. At its best, the conservative tradition recognizes deep human values that are shunted aside by rapid changes in technology, economics, and culture. We understand why traditional marriage is deeply different from a “hook-up,” that individuals cannot thrive outside the family, that unborn human beings deserve protection, that men and women are not simply interchangeable economic units, that a culture in collapse cannot maintain a stable economy, that parents (not the feds) are a child’s primary educators, that hard work (not government programs) is the only road to prosperity. In the words of Gov. Bobby Jindal, “We need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream.”

Such truths deeply resonate with Latinos, as with other Americans. We can remove the artificial barriers to understanding that have grown up in recent decades, and address the real, urgent problems we face alongside our neighbor countries. We can even make our positions politically popular. But we must start by abandoning the cheap rallying cries that have satisfied us for too long, by facing bravely our own moments of hypocrisy, and most of all by seeing the sacred human dignity of every person.