As last week’s controversy over Jeb Bush’s immigration position showed, the politics of immigration reform continue to shift, particularly for the Republican Party. News reports indicate we’re approaching introduction of immigration reform bills in the Senate — and the House. And, the Catholic Church, mirroring many of the same concerns the Republican Party has, chose a new pope from South America.
The changing politics: CPAC
After a period of positive developments that show momentum for immigration reform building in conservative circles, including South Carolina business and religious leaders launching an ad campaign to support Lindsey Graham, all eyes narrowed in on the speeches and discussions at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Would this group of “severe” conservatives prove that they had gotten the memo and are ready to do their part to help remake the GOP’s image with Latino voters? Or will they stick with their old policies and fallacies and continue to drive the Party towards extinction?
As a refresher, at last year’s CPAC, Mitt Romney’s immigration advisor, Kris Kobach, outlined the hardline immigration approach that eventually played a major role in Romney’s historically low level of support from Latino voters in November’s election: “If you want to create a job for a U.S. citizen tomorrow, deport an illegal alien today,” said Kobach in 2012.
This year’s CPAC featured an immigration panel discussion titled, “Respecting Families and the Rule of Law: A Lasting Immigration Policy” at which many panelists, like Jennifer Korn of Hispanic Leadership Network and Republican pollster Whit Ayres, sounded a largely pro-reform tone. However, other panelists such as Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID) failed to grasp the new politics of immigration that have emerged since the 2012 elections. Said Labrador, “It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States.” This was widely reported as renewed proof that Labrador opposes a path to full citizenship for undocumented immigrants, although there’s certainly some wiggle room in his choice of language. Semantics aside, it seems that Labrador is missing an important point: an earned path to citizenship has become the mainstream in the political debate. And despite the skepticism of some CPAC audience members, the Republican party needs to move to the mainstream if they want to even scratch the surface on making inroads with Latino voters.
Policy: Legislation moving in the Senate and, more surprisingly, the GOP-led House
The New York Times reports that the “bipartisan group of House members that has been meeting quietly for nearly four years to discuss an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system is nearing agreement on a framework, and is briefing their respective leadership this week.” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said, “I think as of last night, they may have an agreement, an agreement in principle in terms of how we would deal with the question of both legal immigration and illegal immigration.”
The development, which raises the question whether the House bi-partisan Gang of 8 will actually finish crafting its immigration bill before its Senate bi-partisan Gang of 8 counterpart, underscores how much the immigration debate has shifted in a positive direction and is another reminder of the momentum behind reform.
Many recent developments have signaled the GOP’s readiness to turn the page away from its anti-immigrant past, but, that’s been talk. In the very near future, Speaker Boehner is going to have to decide how the GOP caucus will proceed on actual legislation.
In regards to the ongoing conversation in Republican circles about immigration reform and the GOP’s challenge to rehabilitate its image among Latino voters, Washington Post conservative political blogger Jennifer Rubin aptly assesses, “conservatives are kidding themselves if they think they can win national or statewide without changing their tune on immigration. As [Marco] Rubio said, so long as they want to deport your grandmother, a Republican isn’t going to get a hearing with minority voters.”
She’s right. Last week, Latino Decisions conducted a poll of Latino voters on behalf of America’s Voice/Service Employees International Union (SEIU)/ National Council of La Raza (NCLR) that found that if Republicans change their position on immigration and embrace a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, they can reset their image with Latinos. Nationwide, 44% of Latino voters said they would be more likely to vote Republican if the GOP takes a leadership role in passing immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This includes 43% of Latinos who voted for Obama in 2012 and 49% of Latinos who identify as Independents.
As we’ve noted, the GOP needs to go big or go home if they want to survive as a party.
Religion: A new Pope from Latin America, a commitment from Catholic Bishops and Evangelicals step up
Also, this week, the Catholic Church picked its new leader, Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the New World. The Cardinals chose a pope from Latin America, one of the areas of growth for the Catholic Church. Last week, the Washington Post reported, “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday added to the nearly $3 million the church has invested in the past year on immigration reform efforts, saying they sense a political opening on a topic that’s long been a concern for a strongly immigrant faith.” The question remains whether the Bishops will be as outspoken on the immigration issues as they have been on other social issues. And, the new Pope’s commitment to social justice has been viewed as an encouraging sign for immigration reform from priests in Hazelton, PA (home of anti-immigrant Rep. Lou Berletta) to Omaha where Rev. Joseph Chavez said, “Talk about someone who knows about immigration.”
Other religions have also come of the forefront in the campaign for reform, including Evangelicals. This week, in South Carolina, a group of evangelical leaders, including Richard Land from the Southern Baptist convention, stepped into the fray to defend Sen. Lindsey Graham, “A group representing top evangelical leaders announced Wednesday that it will air ads on 15 South Carolina Christian radio stations urging Christians to contact members of Congress in support of an overhaul to the nation’s immigration laws, including a path to citizenship for immigrants currently in the country illegally.”
The Bottom Line: When it comes to Immigration Reform, the momentum for real reform grows the day. It’s increasingly clear, Republicans don’t really have a choice in the matter. They need it.
While House and Senate Republicans continue to signal an openness to making real immigration reform a reality, within the next few weeks, the Party will have to show that it can do more than just “talk the talk” when it comes to making real inroads with Latino voters. As we anxiously await a draft immigration reform bill, the question still remains as to whether or not the GOP has fully grasped the fatal consequences of inaction.
For years, GOP leaders have been in synch with the policy agendas of Evangelicals and the Catholic Church. As religious leaders assert their influence in the immigration reform, will that continue?