Commentary Magazine


The GOP’s Immigration Dilemma

It is possible that House Speaker John Boehner’s comments yesterday casting doubt that immigration reform legislation can be passed this year isn’t the final word on the subject. Boehner wants to tackle the issue and knows it’s in the best interests of the Republican Party that the GOP not be seen as the sole obstacle to fixing a broken system. But he also knows that a majority of the House Republican caucus as well as much of the conservative grassroots activists that provide the ground troops in campaigns want no part of a bill that would provide “amnesty” to illegals or, for that matter, anything that smacks of compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. So just a week after the House leadership issued a set of principles on immigration that seemed to hold out the promise of a compromise with the White House—especially after the president expressed his willingness to accept a bill that did not include a direct path to citizenship for illegals—Boehner’s comments were an acknowledgement that the bulk of his party simply won’t tolerate any immigration bill at all.

This pleases conservatives who feared an intra-party battle over immigration would derail what appeared to be an excellent chance of victory in the midterm elections this November. They argued the debate over immigration would distract voters from ObamaCare and supress GOP turnout. Since Republicans have good reason to believe that the president won’t enforce the border security parts of any new package, there seemed no reason for Boehner to risk his party’s unity—and his Speakership—to take up this hot potato.

But assuming that this is the final word on the subject in 2014 and not just Boehner’s feint to the right before addressing the issue later this year–as immigration reform advocates still hope–this decision is nothing for Republicans to celebrate. Even if we accept the premise that a debate on immigration would harm the GOP’s chances to take back the Senate this fall, a Republican decision to obstruct reform is a terrible mistake that will cause more damage to the party in the long run than an internecine battle over the issue would do this year.

As our Peter Wehner detailed in a sobering post yesterday, the Republican Party has a demographic problem that can’t be ignored or wished away. With minorities making up an increasingly large percentage of the American population, the GOP’s chances of winning back the presidency in 2016 or in subsequent elections hinge on its ability to appeal to non-whites and specifically the growing Hispanic population. While many conservatives are right to argue that passing immigration reform isn’t a magic bullet that will persuade predominantly liberal Hispanic voters to embrace the Republicans, it must be understood that as long as the party is viewed as implacably hostile to the interests of Hispanics, its chances of making even minor inroads in that group are minimal. As the numbers that Pete discussed illustrate, a failure to change this electoral equation seals the fate of the GOP in presidential politics for the foreseeable future.

But the damage isn’t limited to the resentment Hispanics feel about a party dominated by those who seem intent on clinging to the fantasy of deporting 11 million people. The implacable resistance to “amnesty” on the part of some conservatives seems rooted as much in hostility to growing ethnic diversity as it is to a reluctance to acknowledge that the illegals already here must be given a chance to get right with the law. That image hurts Republicans with more than just Hispanics. With some on the right saying they oppose immigration because they wish to prevent more Hispanics from becoming voters, this less attractive aspect of the immigration debate can’t be ignored. Republican leaders must confront and reject such views and the only effective way to do it is to pass a reform bill now and put this issue in their rear-view mirror.

Nor can we assume that reform can be put off until next January, when the GOP hopes it will control both houses of Congress. Even if Republicans are in charge of the Senate as well as the House next year, the same dynamic that pits conservative/Tea Party rebels against the so-called establishment will still be in play. If anything, the Republican caucus will be even less likely to listen to reason on immigration in 2015 than it is in 2014. Due to gerrymandering and the growing division between the parties, GOP representatives have grown more conservative in each new Congress. This year won’t reverse that trend. Thus, it will be even harder for Boehner or any Republican leader to keep his troops in line in order for the GOP to pass a bill that will soften the Democrats’ advantage with Hispanics prior to 2016.

It is true that President Obama deserves some of the blame here. By choosing to use his State of the Union address to justify a shift toward efforts to bypass Congress and rule by executive order, he played right into the hands of conservatives who accurately point out the president has already demonstrated that his administration will only enforce the laws he agrees with. That means the enforcement element of any immigration package may prove illusory even if Democrats agree to the tough measures Republicans have rightly demanded.

But Obama will not be president forever. Immigration reform is not just good politics but also good public policy. Fixing the system is an imperative, as is policing the border. But if Republicans succumb to the temptation to procrastinate or oppose reform for the sake of avoiding an intra-party squabble, they will not only be making a mistake on the merits of the issue but committing a long-term political error that will ensure their dissatisfaction with the occupant of the Oval Office for decades to come.

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