How the GOP Can Win On Immigration Reform

Republicans are going to become increasingly irrelevant in national politics unless they do something about their waning support among the nation’s fastest growing voting bloc: Latinos.

Thus far, they have tamed down on extreme rhetoric considerably and many in the leadership ranks have come out in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is heralded as the savior of the right who can bring the GOP back from the dead. Condoleezza Rice, Henry Cisneros, Haley Barbour and Ed Rendell are set to form a bipartisan commission and seek consensus on immigration reform. In the House, Republicans seem open to the idea of residency for 11 million immigrants.

However, carelessly throwing their support behind a theoretical comprehensive immigration reform will not ensure that the Republicans can pick up some Latinos votes. Years of demagoguery on the issue has tarnished the Republican image among minorities and the credit for immigration reform will squarely go to the Democrats, namely, President Obama. Immigration reform will create millions of potential voters, most of whom will vote Democrat. And that is what has Republicans running away from the issue or opposing the creation of any special pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But elections are not entirely national. New data suggests that Republicans in the House will benefit more than Democrats by supporting some sort of immigration reform, if they can gain just a little traction from it.  With the passage of immigration reform, Democrats have more seats to lose in contentious districts and incumbent Democrats can no longer keep the issue on the agenda to aid their re-election campaigns. This research should have House Democrat strategists on the edge about the possibility of bipartisan compromise.

Democratic version of Look away!

Democratic version of Look away! (Photo credit: Norm Walsh).

However, the Republicans need to take advantage of immigration reform in a way that not just allows them to take back the House, but also win the Presidency. With 40 million new Latino voters by 2030, and more if immigration reform becomes a reality, the GOP does not have any way to escape the issue of immigration reform. They have to not only come to the bipartisan table created by the Democrats — the GOP has to own the issue. The GOP has to create their own table in a way that benefits them as well as exposes the hypocrisy clear in Democrat support for immigration reform.

For years, both political parties have played games with immigrants and the American public. President Obama has little issue with slurring undocumented immigrants as “illegal immigrants” and adopting a tough framework that criminalizes immigrants while hatching up record numbers of deportations. The “champion” of comprehensive immigration reform, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), actually insists on the label of “illegal aliens” as a prerequisite to advancing any sort of reform. After buying and selling a narrative that demonizes undocumented immigrants (and Latinos) by pushing the conversation to the right, it is hardly shocking that we have demagogues such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona on the right who have used the issue as a way to wield power and prestige.

This has left a tremendous power vacuum for a voice of reason on the issue that both President Obama and Senator Rubio are vying to fill. While Democrats in the Senate can push through a bipartisan bill, there is no such plan for the House due to lack of leadership on the issue. Instead, Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-IL) is likely to re-introduce his last comprehensive immigration bill with minor changes, in the next few weeks, to try to move the conversation in the House.

As such, immigration legislation is likely to move only when the House leadership realizes it is in their best interest to lead on the issue. House Speaker Rep. John Boehner and Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor are hinting at piecemeal reform as a viable solution that would break up the mammoth comprehensive immigration bill into more manageable pieces. Such a move would bring up popular immigration bills like the DREAM Act and STEM for a vote, giving certain groups more victories, and momentum. Data suggests that this would also translate into providing the GOP with the bit of traction that they need to win back the House for years to come. And given that “comprehensive” is now the Democrat party-line, a piecemeal approach by the Republicans would leave the Democrats hapless in the Senate with the empty and meaningless rhetoric of “comprehensive immigration reform” while showing the public that the Republicans are not only willing to compromise on the issue, but willing to lead the way.

For the GOP then, the only way to lose is not to play.


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