President Obama’s reelection doesn’t guarantee a breakthrough in the long stalemate over immigration reform. But it did instantly invert the debate.
Since the collapse of a bipartisan immigration-reform effort in 2007, Democrats have divided over the issue while Republicans have remained in lockstep, particularly in opposition to any plan that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. Now it’s the reverse. Democrats are talking confidently about forcing the issue in 2013, while Republicans are fracturing. For the first time since George W. Bush’s presidency, a genuine debate over immigration is emerging within the GOP, with advocates of comprehensive reform regaining their voices at events like a potentially landmark conference this week in Washington.
Until the November election, Republican reform advocates had spent the previous six years as besieged as the survivors in The Walking Dead. In 2006, 23 Senate Republicans joined a bipartisan majority to pass legislation backed by Bush that toughened border enforcement, created a guest-worker program, and established a path to citizenship for those here illegally. But the effort died when House Republicans shelved it and Bush acquiesced.
In 2007, the Senate coalition unraveled amid centrifugal pressure, partly from the left but mostly from the populist right. Ever since, conservatives have waged an unrelenting counterrevolution against Republicans supporting anything that could be tagged as “amnesty.” These trends reached an apex (or nadir) this year, as GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney embraced “self-deportation” and the Republican platform called for denying all federal higher-education funds to states that provided in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants—a policy that would have meant no more Pell Grants for any Anglo kids in Texas.
The presidential-election results have forced the GOP to question this fever. Romney won as much of the white vote (59 percent) as George H.W. Bush did in 1988 when he captured 426 Electoral College votes. But Romney won only 206 electoral votes, less than half of Bush’s total. Romney faced cavernous deficits among not only Latinos but also Asians, an outcome that suggests that many new Americans heard “self-deportation” as a call for them to pack their bags. “It didn’t just affect Hispanics,” said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican Latino group.
During Obama’s first term, Democrats failed to seriously pursue immigration reform for fear of alienating culturally conservative whites. But after winning this year with minimal support from those voters, and with such emphatic backing from immigrant communities, the White House and Senate leadership will likely press the issue much harder in 2013.
The dominant Republican camp still says the party should respond by opposing anything that legalizes undocumented immigrants. On both policy and political grounds, National Review and The Weekly Standard have each passionately made that case since the election. “Republicans who believe that amnesty would buy them an electoral advantage with Hispanics,” National Review insisted in an editorial, “are deluding themselves.”
But for the first time since 2007, other voices in the GOP are arguing for sweeping action. After 18 months of assiduous local organizing, the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-advocacy group, this week gathered in Washington dozens of center-right religious, law-enforcement, and business leaders (such as AOL founder Steve Case, whom I interviewed for a session at the event) who support a pathway to legal status. Coincidentally, former President George W. Bush emerged on the same day to urge immigration reform “with a benevolent spirit.”
National Review is correct that a pathway to legalization doesn’t guarantee Republicans big gains with Hispanic voters. Most Latinos prefer more government activism than Republicans are offering. And years of resisting action on immigration has left the GOP without any entirely good options. If the party blocks comprehensive reform, it risks further alienating Hispanics. If it acquiesces, it allows President Obama to sign historic legislation that could further cement their loyalty. One path leaves the GOP standing in the schoolhouse door; the other casts Obama as Lyndon Johnson, achieving a 21st-century counterpart to the Civil Rights Act.
Each course presents risks. But GOP reformers convincingly argue that the party is better off embracing reform that would at least “take the issue off the table” and allow Republicans to engage Hispanics on other fronts, as John Weaver, former chief strategist for Sen. John McCain, puts it. At the immigration conference, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the socially conservative National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, noted that if Republicans partnered with Obama to reform the immigration system, they could claim a share of the authorship, just as the Republican Congress did when it joined with Bill Clinton to restructure welfare. “To this day,” Rodriguez noted, “they both take credit.” Korn agrees, and warns that even if Obama benefits from completing reform, the alternative is worse. If the GOP obstructs a deal, she says, Democrats “have already shown they know how to use that to paint Republicans as the anti-immigrant party.”
Immigration reform probably wouldn’t be sufficient to significantly improve the GOP’s standing with Hispanics. But it’s a necessary first step. And every journey begins with that.
This article appears in the Dec. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal as Back on the Agenda.