The stars all seem aligned for immigration reform this year. President Obama has made it a cornerstone of his domestic agenda. Business leaders support it enthusiastically. The mainstream media from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal are behind it.
And most importantly, the shellacking Republicans suffered among Hispanic voters in the 2012 election—the president won 71% of that vote vs. 27% for GOP candidate Mitt Romney—has been, as they say, a “come to Jesus” moment. Farsighted party leaders can see demographic disaster ahead unless they get right with Hispanics, likely the fastest growing part of the US electorate in coming decades.
So, it’s no surprise that prominent Republican senators like John McCain (an early proponent of immigration reform who flip flopped when he ran for re-election in 2010) is now back on board with a new Gang of Eight, including Republicans Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio and Democrats Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet.
They have put together a plan that would:
- Tighten requirements on employers to check workers’ immigration status
- Increase visas for highly skilled workers and give green cards to foreign students who earn masters and PhD degrees in science and math at US universities
- Initiate an agricultural guest-worker program, and most importantly,
- Create a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented people currently in the US if they pay fines and back taxes and the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border is secure.
And there’s the rub. Is the toughened “path to citizenship” just a euphemism for “amnesty”? That’s political poison on the right, where primary elections are won and lost, as Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post:
The type of voters who dominate the Republican presidential primaries are not necessarily on board with the change. McCain had to harden his position considerably to win the nomination in 2008, and Romney battled with his primary rivals over who would be the toughest on illegal immigrants.
And it’s a key reason why Romney ultimately lost the general election. So, it’s important that Rubio, the GOP’s brightest star, is on board—and he got some political cover over the weekend when Rep. Paul Ryan, who may be a rival in 2016, supported immigration reform as well.
While Republican senators line up behind a deal (and the president prepares to back their plan), the House of Representatives is another story. That’s where the Tea Party and the far right are likely to take their last stand against a changing America.
They will never believe the border is secure enough to certify it’s OK to start moving people into a path to citizenship and they will trot out colorful anecdotes to make their case on Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin’s radio shows and on RedState.com.
They simply think “undeserving” people should not be “rewarded,” no matter what. Their voting strength in Republican primaries on all levels could encourage House Republicans to push for even tougher provisions—maybe so tough they scuttle any deal. We’ve seen this many times before with “grand bargains” that came to nought.
Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin warned them to get with the program:
Do they cling to phony bumper sticker slogans like “no amnesty” or do they join the reality-based legislation movement? It’s time to put aside the nasty rhetoric, the phony excuses and the urge to play to the most extreme elements in the base.
Translation: No pandering. It’s time for Republican legislators—and voters—to stop cutting off their noses to spite their faces.