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On Immigration and Elections: What is the GOP So Afraid Of?

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New GOP Member from Louisiana Shows that Conviction, Commonsense and Citizenship Go Together

Washington, DC – This past weekend, Republican Vance McAllister won a special election over a Tea Party-backed, Republican state senator to fill the open seat for Louisiana’s 5th congressional district.  Once sworn in as a Member of Congress, Rep. McAllister will become the twenty-ninth House Republican to have expressed support for a path to citizenship.  McAllister said in early November, “We have to secure the borders, but (citizenship) has to be attainable for those people already here.  It has to be a tough path, but it has to be attainable.”  While immigration reform wasn’t the major focus of the special election, the fact that the winning candidate in a safe Republican seat in Louisiana felt politically comfortable expressing a pro-immigration reform sentiment reflects an underappreciated fact – that opposition to immigration reform is not nearly as widespread or pronounced as political conventional wisdom believes.

“There is no major constituency in support of the current House Republican ‘do nothing’ position,” said Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice.  “It is increasingly clear that the diehard opposition to immigration reform simply is not sizeable or credible.  Given that the pro-reform movement is growing in strength while the anti-immigrant movement is increasingly exposed as a paper tiger, what exactly is Speaker Boehner afraid of?”

In Congress, the anti-immigrant Steve King wing of the Republican Party is loud, but not large.  In fact, the King caucus is dwarfed by the numbers of House Republicans who support some form of legal status for the undocumented.  The conservative Weekly Standard calculated earlier this fall that “84 House Republicans have publicly voiced support for granting some type of legal status to the 11 million immigrants here in the country illegally, and 20 others have said they would be willing to consider it.”  Additionally, adding the 29 House Republicans in support of citizenship to the nearly 200 House Democrats supportive of reform would provide the majority to pass reform, if House Republican leaders allowed a vote to occur.

Meanwhile, the anti-immigrant movement is weakened, especially in comparison to the breadth and diversity of pro-reform forces across the nation.  During the August congressional recess, all the energy in districts throughout the nation was for reform and the supposedly vaunted anti-immigrant opposition was weak.  Since then, the pro-reform movement has continued to generate notice and pressure, while the anti-immigrant movement has been mostly absent from the picture.

This captures the state of public opinion as well – poll after poll shows that the majority of the nation strongly backs immigration reform with a path to citizenship (see this recap).  Even Republicans and conservatives prefer the policy option of reform with a path to citizenship versus other alternatives.  For example, a Quinnipiac poll released last week asked, “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States?”  Of solely Republican respondents, a plurality of 44% preferred allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, while 15% supported the “remain in U.S., but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship” option, and 38% of Republicans supported requiring the undocumented to leave the U.S (among all respondents, 57% supported citizenship, 12% supported legalization with no citizenship, and 26% supported requiring undocumented immigrants to leave). These results are further echoed by polls in targeted GOP districts in California, Colorado, Florida, New York, Nevada and Texas. During the 2012 election cycle, Republican caucus-goers in Iowa preferred the more practical immigration approach espoused by Newt Gingrich to Mitt Romney’s self-deportation options.  Even Mitt Romney recently walked-back his immigration policy position in comments last week, as he acknowledged his campaign’s failings with Latino voters and endorsed some variety of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Concluded Tramonte, “From allowing a vote on the Steve King-backed amendment to defund the DREAMer deferred action program (the only immigration vote in the full House this year) to slow-walking reform and throwing cold water on the idea of going to conference with the Senate, John Boehner keeps playing into the hands of the small and shrinking wing of his Party and the electorate who are against immigration reform.  The question remains, why?”