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Immigration Reform – Week in Review and Look Ahead: Steve King and the Crazies Step Up, Speaker Boehner Steps Back. Who Is In Charge Of The House GOP?

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This week, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) proved that he is setting the GOP agenda on Immigration.  King’s comments comparing young undocumented DREAMers to drug mules put a spotlight on the quandary facing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) as he tries to improve his Party’s badly tarnished brand with Latino voters and quiet the extremists in his caucus.

However, by week’s end, it became clear that Steve King’s not the only problem facing the Republican Party.  The Huffington Post reports today that in 2012, current Virginia attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli actually compared pest control in the District of Columbia to immigration reform: “They have to relocate the rats.  And, not only that, that’s actually not the worst part, they cannot break up the families of the rats!  So, anyway, it is worse than our immigration policy…You can’t break up rat families.  Or raccoons, and all the rest, and you can’t even kill ’em.  Its unbelievable.”

Apologizing for ugly rhetoric like this is not enough to improve the GOP’s tarnished image with Latino voters.  While Speaker Boehner said that comments like King’s may make it harder for Congress to pass immigration reform, it should actually make the stakes clearer for him and others ostensibly in charge of the House GOP: the best way to show Latinos and other Americans that Steve King is no longer the go-to guy for immigration in the House is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Unfortunately so far, we’re only seeing a small baby-step from the House GOP.  This week the Immigration Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a soon-to-be-unveiled piece of legislation they are calling the KIDS Act—a DREAM Act-lite reform that would offer legalization for some but stop short of citizenship for all.  The hearing was supposed to be the first attempt by House Republicans’ to showcase an apparent evolution on immigration and extend a hand towards the Latino and immigrant communities.  While the KIDS Act proposal itself received a barrage of criticisms as too little and too late, it was the new comments from King that really stole the show.

The inevitable conclusion from this week’s events is that the GOP’s Latino problem is a direct result of its Steve King and Cuccinelli problem, which leaders have enabled instead of cutting off at the pass.  As a new poll of Latino voters also released this week makes clear, the GOP’s Latino problem will only subside if Boehner and other leaders step in, take control, and schedule a vote to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Here’s how the House Republicans’ own “path to citizenship” (and path to Latino support) works:

  • The Only Way to Silence King is to Embrace Immigration Reform: Rep. Steve King has long history of hateful rhetoric about immigrants, but he’s also being enabled by House Republican colleagues who have allowed him and his allies to drive the Party’s immigration direction for years.  As MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin noted yesterday, “From their reaction (and King’s long history of inflammatory comments), you might be tempted to think the Iowa Republican is a fringe voice in the House immigration debate with little influence on his party.  He isn’t.  In fact, when it comes to the undocumented youth, there’s a decent argument that he’s the de facto policy leader.” For example, just weeks ago, House Republicans passed a King-authored amendment to de-fund the DREAMer deferred action program – and subject DREAMers to deportation. Boehner and other House Members have denounced King’s remarks, but they’re also trying to quash the controversy. In fact, Speaker Boehner seems intent to use the King comment controversy as an excuse for continued legislative inaction and throwing up his hands – as if he doesn’t have the power to do anything about it.  Yesterday, Speaker Boehner noted in response to Rep. King’s comments and immigration reform prospects, “It does make it more difficult, but I’m going to continue to work with members who want to get a solution, as opposed to those who want to do nothing.” As Steve Benen wrote on MSNBC.com, “I’m glad the Speaker of the House sees Steve King’s bigotry as ‘hateful’ and ‘ignorant,’ but I’d even more glad if the Speaker of the House weren’t letting Steve King win the policy fight…If John Boehner and the House Republican leadership ignored Steve King’s demands and passed comprehensive immigration reform, the ‘problem’ posed by the unhinged Iowan would, in fact, be solved.”
  • But if Boehner Let’s Steve King Continue Driving the Latino Strategy, the Whole Party Suffers: Polling of Latino voters in 24 Republican-held battleground districts released by Latino Decisions and America’s Voice this week demonstrates the damage that Rep. Steve King and his allies are inflicting on the Republican Party’s competitiveness among Latino voters.  While the Latino voter polling was fielded before the latest ugly comments from King (saying that DREAMers are more likely to be drug smugglers than valedictorians), a full 78% of Latino respondents in the poll said the following recent Steve King statement made them less likely to support the Republican Party: “Congress does not have an obligation to resolve the issue of the 11 million people who are here illegally.  They came here on their own.  They came here to live in the shadows.  There’s no moral calling for us to solve the problem they created for themselves.  They can easily solve it by just returning to the country where they came from.”  Irresponsible and inflammatory statements, combined with inaction on proactive policy solutions, adds up to a 70% disapproval rating on GOP handling of immigration among Latino midterm voters, according to Latino Decisions.
  • Boehner Can Repair King’s Damage, but ONLY IF He and Schedules a Vote on Immigration Reform with a Path to Citizenship.  According to the Latino Decisions poll, among midterm Latino voters in the 24 districts polled, 62% have voted Republican at some point in their lives; 50% would be more likely to support a GOP House candidate in their district if they take a leadership role in passing immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, even if they disagree on other issues; and 62% would feel more favorable towards Republicans in Congress if Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) allowed a bipartisan vote immigration reform.
  • Steve King’s Views Aren’t Even In-Sync with His Own Constituents:  The American Action Network released polling in Steve King’s home yesterday, the 4th congressional district in Iowa.  As POLITICO noted of the results, “68 percent of voters in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District supports an ‘earned pathway to legal status,’ while 65 percent support an ‘earned pathway to citizenship.’ Of the Republican voters in King’s district, 70 percent back a path to legal status, while 51 percent back a pathway to citizenship.”
  • The Longer Boehner Waits on Reform, the More the Pressure Builds:  Ahead of August recess, this weekend, hundreds of immigrant rights supporters will turnout at events across the country, calling on House leadership to schedule a vote on immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million.  This Saturday, in-district rallies targeting Speaker Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-IL), and House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) should serve as a huge wake-up call to House Republicans who think they can squeak by with immigration half-measures and punt on reform entirely.  Saturday’s rallies will only be a taste of what’s to come as August recess gets underway.  As lawmakers return home in the coming weeks, the pro-immigration movement is prepped and ready to hold Republicans accountable on immigration reform and remind them of not only what’s at stake for the GOP but also what’s at stake for the millions of aspiring Americans who want nothing more than to be embraced by the country they call home.

Speaker Boehner has a choice: deliver a real solution on immigration, start to rebuild the GOP’s brand and lead his party to potential success in 2014, 2016, and beyond; or continue to let the Steve King minority caucus drive the Party’s strategy and further isolate the GOP from Latinos and other Americans.  As Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, “Republicans are going to have to decide whether they belong to the Steve King faction of the Republican Party, or to the get-it-done faction of the Republican Party.  They will have to decide whether they are members of the Steve King Republican Party, or members of the Republican Party that wants to join the American people and get this done.”