Immigration reform: Big test for the "stupid party"
January 29, 2013By Dick Polman
Path-to-citizenship immigration reform is on the table, and we'll soon find out whether Republicans are indeed willing to partake.
Actually, it depends on which GOP faction we're talking about. The enlightened faction is rightly chastened by what happened last November, when Mitt "Self-Deportation" Romney garnered a mere 27 percent of an energized Hispanic turnout. The enlightened faction understands that unless the party can amp up its pitiful Hispanic share, it may well lose Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, New Mexico, and Florida in perpetuity. Hence the current effort, by a handful of Republican senators in cahoots with Democratic colleagues, to draft a "tough" but "fair" reform blueprint that would give 11 million people a chance to join the ranks of citizens.
But there is another GOP faction, an arguably more powerful one. It was briefly mentioned yesterday in The New York Times, in the 26th paragraph of a 27-paragraph story on the supposedly bright prospects for immigration reform. Just a passing reference: "Considerable resistance remains among Republicans in the House of Representatives to granting any kind of legal status to illegal immigrants."
Ah yes, the Republican House - the Bermuda Triangle of lawmaking, where common sense often vanishes without a trace.
A number of key Republican players are assailing the bipartisan Senate blueprint as "amnesty." A key House subcommitee chairman - a tea-partyer from South Carolina (that should tell you all you need to know) - opposes anything that strikes him as "backdoor amnesty." Steve King, a tea-partyer from Iowa (who may run for Tom Harkin's Senate seat; Democrats should be so lucky), has denounced the enlightened Republicans as "political opportunists." Lamar Smith, a Texas congressman and immigration subcommittee member, says: "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration." (In reality, illegal immigration spiked years ago, under the broken system; it has since slowed to a trickle, due to a declining Mexican birth rate.)
So don't be surprised if the Republican House stays in character - despite the obvious political risks of alienating Hispanic voters even further. In the 2012 exit polls, nearly 80 percent of them supported a path to citizenship. Granted, immigration reform is just one of many issues in the Hispanic community, but Republicans can't hope to connect with that electorate unless they wean themselves of their reflexive xenophobia - and, indeed, wean themselves of all the absolutist traits that make it (in the words of GOP governor Bobby Jindal) "the stupid party."
That's why Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who knows that his state may never again vote Republican unless his party wises up, endorsed the bipartisan blueprint and said yesterday: "We are dealing with 11 million human beings who have come here in pursuit of what all of us would recognize as the American dream....I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants. My family is immigrants. Married into a family of immigrants. I see immigration every single day. I see the good of immigration."
Bubble security, border security
So why is the Republican House so resistant to reality? Because its members are secure inside the bubble.
The GOP caucus is dominated by conservatives who hail from safe conservative districts. These lawmakers don't have to worry about being swept from office in 2014 by an Hispanic wave, because their districts have very few Hispanics. If anything, the big threat to their careers would come from the Republican right; if they fail to toe the anti-immigrant "amnesty" line, they risk being challenged in 2014 primaries by hardliners who abhor all compromise. And, on the racial front, a majority of GOPers represent districts that are at least 80 percent white. In other words, the Republican House is comfortable obstructing immigration reform. It can essentially veto any attempts by the enlightened faction to moderate the party's image and broaden its appeal.
And the bipartisan Senate blueprint - encouraging as it looks on paper - has all kinds of caveats that conservatives can game with ease. Even though the plan envisions a path-to-citizenship process, it won't happen until America's borders are secured. The key provision: "Our legislation will create a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill's security measures outlined in the legislation are completed."
Oh man. That loophole is rife for exploitation by the Republican right. Who's going to decide that the bid to secure the borders has been "completed?" Will Jan Brewer, the hardline Arizona governor, sit on this commission and make the call on how that word should be defined? Even if the reform package ultimately passes the House (with the enlightened GOP faction voting yes, in cahoots with Democrats), conservative safe-district Republicans could perpetually insist that the citizenship process remain in limbo because border security is insufficiently complete.
That's fine for the House members. But for those Republicans who get the big picture, saying No to reform is a political loser. Exhibit A is John McCain. He used to be a path-to-citizenship reformer, but after the Republican right torpedoed his reform bill in 2007, he dutifully lurched rightward for his '08 presidential bid - and he was drubbed by Hispanic voters. Now, in the aftermath of Romney's drubbing, he's embracing his original stance. As he put it yesterday, "Elections, elections. The Republican party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens....This is a preeminent issue with those citizens. We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people residing in the shadows."
The GOP is stuck at a crossroad. If it chooses the future, it'll have a decent shot at diversifying its appeal and winning a national election. But if it hesitates...cue up the '30s lyrics from bluesman Robert Johnson:
I'm standin' at the crossroad / I believe I'm sinking down.
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