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Can the GOP Change on Immigration?

Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

There was a reason why, of all issues, the generally moderate Mitt Romney chose immigration as the one on which he would tack hardest to the right. In the one instance where his pose as a “severely conservative” Republican seemed to resonate, Romney attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for their more liberal stands on the issue. The tactic worked, and even though Romney’s stand shifted a bit to the center as the campaign wore on — by accepting a modified version of the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally but subsequently served in the U.S. military — until November 6, there was little sign that his party was ready to reassess its position.

In part, this reluctance to shift on immigration stems from the fact that a great many Americans believe the starting point to any discussion of the issue ought to be defense of the rule of law. Though some of those who obsess about the issue have blown the dangers that stem from immigration out of proportion and sound like 19th century “Know Nothings,” most Republican primary voters who care about the issue take a less extreme position. They believe the idea that the United States ought not to be able to control its borders is ludicrous. Treating law breaking in the form of illegal immigration as nothing more serious than a traffic ticket is offensive.

That’s why strong majorities of Americans polled on the topic generally support the controversial Arizona law that was both mischaracterized and condemned by President Obama in the second presidential debate. There’s nothing unconstitutional or unreasonable about inquiring about the immigration status of someone who has already been arrested on a different charge.

The plain fact is that the 12 million illegals that are already here are not going to be rounded up and deported. The government has neither the resources nor the will do so, and expectations that this will happen or, as Romney ludicrously put it, they will “self deport,” is detached from reality. Sooner or later the government will have to recognize their status and give them a path to legality, if not citizenship.

But anyone who thinks most Republican voters are prepared to tolerate a shift on the issue in the immediate future is dreaming. While there has always been a faction of leaders and thinkers that supported a strategy based on extending rights to the illegals, the last two elections show that this group is a minority within the GOP.

It should also be acknowledged that such efforts are fated to be largely futile. As Seth wrote, Hispanics are not going to be impressed if they think Republicans are cynically pandering to them. A large portion of the Jewish community continues to think of the GOP the same way their grandparents thought of it: as a vestige of an old country-club elite that harbors anti-Semitic attitudes. This may be an almost deranged and twisted view of reality, since contemporary Republicans tend to be even more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish concerns than Democrats, yet it nevertheless persists. But the bad taste from the harsh rhetoric on immigration from Republicans in recent years will not be washed away any more easily, even though a change of tune from some in the party on the issue won’t hurt. A possible Marco Rubio presidential candidacy in 2016 would also have an effect on the Hispanic vote.

But assuming that it will be easy for Republican leaders to accomplish this without a very strong pushback from their voters is unrealistic. As much as a GOP shift on amnesty would be smart politics and probably good public policy, it’s not likely to happen.


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