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Sunday Show: The Republican Immigration Sea Change and Its Potential Payout for the GOP

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Evidence continued to mount this week that citizenship and common sense solutions continue to hold the mainstream position in the ongoing immigration debate.  And with legislative discussions in both the House and Senate moving full steam ahead, the prospects for making real reform a reality look better than ever.

More GOP Leaders and Rank and File Add Their Voices to the Call for Reform

The domino effect on immigration continues, as more and more conservative leaders declare their support for commonsense immigration reform.  The week started with a new Republican National Committee (RNC) analysis embracing immigration reform and rebuking past bad GOP ideas like “self-deportation.”  Latino Decisions released a new poll showing that Latino voters have a very direct, very personal connection to the immigration debate, explaining WHY anti-immigration reform Republicans have had such a hard time winning their votes.  A  growing network of evangelicals and other religious conservatives made the “moral case for immigration reform.”  Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) came out strongly in favor of immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and several Tea Party Members in the House joined in.  To cap the week, Paul took on conservative icons Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, criticizing their reading of immigration politics and policy.  Clearly, the tectonic plates on immigration have shifted seismically since the 2006 and 2007 debates, making the prospects for broad immigration reform better than ever.  Among this week’s developments:

  • Sen. Rand Paul Endorses Immigration Reform in Highly Anticipated Speech: During a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul “detailed his position on immigration, including an implicit pathway to citizenship,” according to a recap by Ashley Parker in the New York Times.  And despite the continued dustup and confusion about whether or not he actually supports a “pathway to citizenship” by name, the consensus continues to hold that Paul’s new immigration position marks a dramatic shift from his anti-immigrant past.
  • “Tea Partiers Stand By Rand Paul Despite Immigration Conversion”:  According to a headline from ABC News, Sen. Paul’s new immigration stance has influenced the opinions of his traditionally ultra-conservative followers.  According to Sal Russo, founder of the Tea Party Express, “I think the immigration issue is an important issue and Republicans have looked like they have their head in the sand and are not being serious about addressing a problem…People are in this country a long time and they are not legal. We have to get them legal in some way in a process that gets people legal that are here…We should do it because it’s the right thing. We need to reform immigration because we need a system that works.”
  • Rep. Raul Labrador Urges Republicans to be “Open Minded” on Citizenship:  Said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) to reporters, “What I think should happen is for illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows, become legalized in some way and that status could lead in someway to legal residency and citizenship eventually but just the same as everybody else.”
  • Haley Barbour Issues His Full-Throated Endorsement for Citizenship:  Said the Former Mississippi Governor during a panel discussion at the Bipartisan Policy Center, “I am very comfortable with a path to citizenship…It should be more strenuous than the path for people who come here under the regular rules…I’m very comfortable with that. Some people aren’t. And that’s part of what getting from here to there is all about.”
  • Sen. Rand Paul Takes on Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh: On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul issued a strong rebuke to conservative media hosts Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, who both recently criticized the Senator for his pro-immigration reform stance.  Said Paul during an appearance on Fox News: “I’ve got a news flash for those who want to call people names on amnesty: what we have now is de facto amnesty… We have 11 million people here. They’ve been here, some of them, for a decade or more. No one is telling them to go home, no one’s sending them home.”  To the idea that being pro-reform somehow threatened the Republican Party’s competitiveness, Paul replied: “Here’s another news flash.  We haven’t been too competitive in the last two national elections.”

The Republican sea change from just a few months ago (remember Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” plan?) is remarkable.  As Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine writes, “As of now, anti-reform conservatives have no standard bearer. All of the major 2016 figures — Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker — support comprehensive reform … All of the major candidates support reform, so none of them can undercut each other by appealing to anti-reform sentiment.”  And as more 2016 contenders emerge, it’s safe to say that how they address immigration will play a defining role in shaping their campaigns.

Yet Despite this Republican Progress, Some GOPers Opposing Immigration Reform Want to Oppose it More Slowly

At the same time that momentum among conservatives was building, the “do nothing” caucus of Republican Senators–including Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX)–signed a letter this week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asking him to slow the bipartisan immigration reform process down.  According to the letter, these six Republican Senators who all serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee want more time to “read and analyze” the soon-to-be introduced bipartisan bill.  But we really know that’s just a euphemism for trying to stop reform all together.

The thing is that most of the letter’s signers are very familiar with the intricacies of immigration reform. Orrin Hatch used to be supportive of immigration reform and was an original sponsor of the DREAM Act, before he was against it. John Cornyn, a longtime hypocrite on the issue, introduced his own immigration bill in 2005. And, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is so closely linked to the anti-immigrant groups that he’s never met an pro-immigration bill he liked. What does he even need to study? If it helps immigrants, he’s voting no.

With Congress’s already crumbling reputation for inaction amongst the public, it’s rather astonishing this group of Senators would try to put the brakes on an issue that has finally picked up strong, bipartisan, bicameral momentum.

Polling Continues to Favor Reform

Earlier this week, Latino Decisions along with leaders from National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and America’s Voice discussed the second half of a new nationwide poll of Latino voters dissecting how Latino voters’ personal connection to the immigration debate influences their policy and political choices.  And according to the poll results, Republicans have a real opportunity to reset their image with Latinos IF they take a leadership role in passing common sense immigration reform. Thirty-two percent of Latino voters said that they’d be more likely to vote Republican “if the leaders of the Republican worked hard to get a bill passed with Republican votes that includes a pathway to citizenship.”  As a corollary, 39% of Latino voters said they would be less likely to vote Republican “if a bill passes the U.S. Senate, but then gets defeated because Republicans in the House of Representatives vote it down.”  And as a new Latino Decisions blog post from Matt Baretto, Principal at Latino Decisions, highlights: “Reports out of Washington suggest the Gang of 8 may have a compromise bill ready by early April, which will no doubt bring tough questions from both the left and the right.  As the debate unfolds in both chambers of Congress, the latest polling data on Latino voters is clear – Republicans have the most to gain – and lose – among Latino voters on the issue of immigration reform.”

Additionally, a new survey released Thursday by the Brookings Institute and the Public Religion Research Institute, shows that 63% of Americans “agree that the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally by allowing them a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements;” 14% agree “they should be permitted to become permanent legal residents but not citizens;” and 21% “agree that they should be identified and deported.”  Additionally, “More than 7-in-10 (71%) Democrats, nearly two-thirds (64%) of independents, and a majority (53%) of Republicans favor an earned path to citizenship.”