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Immigration Reform – Week in Review and Look Ahead: The Choice Facing House GOP Leaders: Go the Way of the Extremists or Get Serious about Passing Real Reform

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Summary: Political stakes for Republicans to act on broad immigration reform remain high; political space for Republicans to act on broad immigration reform grows; half-measure options–like a DREAM Act-lite under discussion–show Republican evolution is at the beginning stages.

Conventional wisdom states that House Republican leadership has an intractable problem on its hands regarding immigration – an unruly anti-reform caucus that is resistant to sensible reform because its members fear primary challengers; extremist Tea Party opposition; and bleached districts insulated from Latino backlash.

Actually, none of this is much true.  To wit:

  • Anti-Reform Rally in Washington Fizzles: A rally in Washington organized by Tanton Network nativists this week demonstrated that the grassroots opposition to immigration reform isn’t nearly as powerful as conventional wisdom holds.  As Michelle Cottle noted in the Daily Beast, “As protests go, Monday’s anti-immigration march on the Capitol wasn’t exactly a blockbuster,” while assessing that the protesters were “a mere blip by D.C. standards.”  Regarding their allies inside the Capitol, Joshua Culling of Americans for Tax Reform told Molly Ball of The Atlantic that the hardliners in the House caucus appears to consist of “Steve King and his four friends,” and noted, in Ball’s words, that “they’re not getting as much traction as they used to.”
  • The Fear About Primary Challengers from the Right is Overblown: John Stanton of Buzzfeed writes an important analysis titled, “No, Congressman, You Probably Won’t Lose Your Job For Voting For Immigration Reform.”  He concludes, “interviews with operatives, campaign aides, and activists from groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, as well as a review of recent election data, suggests the likelihood of Republicans facing serious primary challenges is not only overstated but probably won’t have much of anything to do with immigration.”  The fact is that most GOP primary challenges become serious when backed by the Club for Growth.  Stanton asked them about immigration and here’s what he hears: “’We don’t care about immigration reform,’ said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller with a chuckle, explaining his organization remains solely focused on ‘economic issues … [and] pro-growth policies.’”
  • Polling Continues to Underscores Broad Public Support for Real Reform & Opposition to House’s Potential Narrow Focus: A new National Journal/United Technologies poll finds that, “only one in five voters said they prefer that the House pass no immigration legislation at all, and only 13 percent said they want the House to strip the path to citizenship from the Senate’s bill,” according to the accompanying poll recap from National Journal.  The same recap also assessed that, “The trouble for Republicans is that passing immigration legislation without a path to citizenship was respondents’ least popular option across all age groups and income levels, among both men and women, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.”  And while a new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds 55%-41% support in favor of a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, this strong majority support for citizenship is despite the fact that the poll unnecessarily separates the citizenship provision from descriptions of border enforcement, unlike the Senate legislation and the basic framework of comprehensive reform.  The bottom line is this: if House Republicans think they can squeak by with enforcement-only or immigration half-measures that fail to address the plight of the full 11 million, they’re only sewing their own fate.

With the conventional wisdom regarding the opposition to reform overstated, if not entirely wrong, it’s worth remembering that the stakes are high for the House GOP—and so are expectations:

  • Immigration – a “Battle for the Soul of the GOP:” The article from Molly Ball of The Atlantic, titled, “The Immigration Fight Is the Battle for the Soul of the GOP,” quotes an array of Republican strategists.  John Feehery, a former top Republican congressional leadership aide, said, “This is the fight for the soul of the party,” and referred to the Steve King caucus as “haters” and, in Ball’s retelling, “heirs to the Know-Nothings who tried to keep out his Irish ancestors.”  Republican strategist John Weaver summed it up succinctly, noting, “We will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform.  It’s just that simple.”  Steve Schmidt, a former campaign strategist for George W. Bush and John McCain, placed the burden on Republican leadership, saying, “We have a fundamental deficit of leadership among political leaders when it comes to standing up to the ideological, radical voices who claim to speak in the name of conservatism.”
  • Republicans Can’t Rely on Cosmetic Measures or Hide from Latino Voters: During his interviews with Spanish-language media outlets this week, President Obama made an important declaration regarding the road ahead for reform.  The President noted that we need to pass comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, reform, reiterated that a pathway to citizenship, “needs to be a part of the bill,” and criticized the idea of offering legalization that stops short of a path citizenship because, “that’s not who we are as Americans.”  The President’s comments come at a key time, as leading House Republicans are putting out feelers on behalf of potential cosmetic and half-loaf measures – Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC and the Chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee) made comments earlier this week designed to embrace the status quo on policy while deflecting political blame, while new remarks from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) seem to favor a piecemeal approach that would give legal status to some while ignoring most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.  Could this work?  Not according to the most recent Latino polling and Spanish language media pundits.  As a new Latino Decisions/Hart Research poll, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), shows, Latino voters strongly reject any approach that fails to include a pathway to citizenship for all the 11 million.  And  according to Spanish language media’s most influential voice, Univisión anchor Jorge Ramos, if reform fails the Latino community and Spanish language media will blame Speaker Boehner and his Republican House colleagues.  In a piece for Univisión.com entitled, “How to lose the White House in 2016,” Ramos says, “Republicans have an opportunity in 2016 to share credit with Democrats on immigration reform, leaving behind years of ill-will.  Sixteen million Latino voters will decide that election.  But if after everything Republicans side with the most extremist anti-immigrants, they’ll lose the White House in 2016 and will have to wait many years to earn the forgiveness of Latinos.”  For good measure, he adds, “Does Boehner really want to be the new villain of the Hispanic community, replacing Sheriff Joe Arpaio?  Does he really want to be part of the sad anti-immigrant contingent including Pete Wilson, Tom Tancredo, Jan Brewer and Ted Cruz?  We’ll see.”
  • And Speaking of Cosmetic Measures… Next week, the House Judiciary Committee will focus its attention on the KIDS Act—a DREAM Act-lite reform that would offer legalization for some but stop short of citizenship for all—where House Republicans will have their first opportunity to show whether or not they’ve truly evolved on the issue of immigration.  While we welcome the House GOP’s change in tone towards DREAMers,  this new immigration half measure doesn’t pass muster for the broader Latino and immigrant communities.  As  Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) stated, “If they’re going to talk about doing something for Dreamers that’s short of even what the President did?  I mean, come on.  We’ve been there, we’ve done that, that’s so yesterday…So much of this sounds like last century’s conversation on immigration.  And I think for most of us…who believe this is a personal issue on immigration, to be part of any effort to create a second class of Americans, I just can’t swallow that.”  And as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) aptly noted about the new proposal, “The Dreamers wouldn’t want that.”  Well, Senator Reid is right.  On Monday, the day before the House Judiciary Hearing, DREAMers will join forces with immigration advocates and leaders to express their outrage at these House immigration half-proposals and call on House leaders to enact a real solution that creates a path to citizenship for the 11 million.

Americas in general and Latino voters in particular know that House Republicans are the only thing standing in the way of real immigration reform being sent to the President’s desk.  The next few weeks will be crucial for Speaker Boehner and his caucus in defining the Party on this issue: will House leadership fall under the influence of Steve King and his “four friends,” offer immigrants half a loaf, or listen to the bipartisan majority in the Senate, House, and country and schedule a vote on a path to citizenship for all 11 million aspiring Americans?