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The Political Imperative for the GOP on Immigration Reform is to Engage in Leadership, Not Gamesmanship

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The Senate immigration reform debate began this week, ushered in by a resounding 84-15 vote on the Motion to Proceed.  Buoyed by polls that show broad bipartisan support for reform with a path to citizenship from the American people and intense support for reform from Latino voters, many believe that a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate is all but certain.

Currently, a range of proposed amendments are circulating on the Senate floor.  While some are good faith efforts to improve the current legislation, a number of Republican amendments and tactics are threatening the heart of reform – its citizenship.  While it is unsurprising that Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) are pushing amendments and tactics that would cut the bill, Gang of 8 member Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has also entered the fray.  He’s pushing amendments that undo the very compromises he agreed to during the bipartisan talks.  The question for Rubio and the rest if the GOP is, do they want to pass a strong bill that Latino voters embrace and share credit got doing so, or let reform falter and shoulder the blame?

  • The Numbers Speak for Themselves: Latino Voters and the Broader American Public are Overwhelmingly on the Side of Reform: As a smattering of new polls released this week highlight, support for reform continues to grow and the political imperative for both parties to pass immigration reform is more pressing now than ever.  A Latino Decisions poll shows that immigration continues to maintain its place as the top issue Latino voters want addressed. Immigration is also a motivating issue for this growing community, with 34% of Latino voters more likely to vote for the GOP if they work to pass immigration reform and 59% less likely to vote for the GOP if they try to block it.  Additionally, 52% of Hispanics said that even if they disagree with the GOP on other issues they would be more favorable to the Republican Party if they pass immigration reform, including 55% of prior GOP voters, 47% of Democrats and 60% of Independents.  These results were further enhanced this week by a series of polls in 29 states that show overwhelming support for the Senate immigration bill.  The poll, sponsored by the Alliance for Citizenship, Partnership for a New American Economy and Republicans for Immigration Reform, showed that across 29 states an average of 67.76% of the likely voters polled strongly or somewhat support bipartisan immigration reform legislation being debated in Washington; an average of 72% strongly or somewhat support a bill that includes a tough but fair path to citizenship like that in the Gang of Eight legislation; and 57.38% are more likely to vote for an elected official who supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship – compared to just 21.79% who would be less likely.  Additionally, a new Fox News poll shows that “74 percent favor finding a way for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country to remain — and eventually become citizens — if they meet certain requirements, such as paying back taxes, learning English and passing a background check” and “most people — 76 percent — think it’s important to pass major immigration reform legislation this year.”  If Republicans are serious about wanting to improve their Party’s electoral prospects, they should look no further than the Senate immigration bill in Congress.
  • Marco Rubio’s Actions are Eroding Trust of Gang of Eight Colleagues & Immigrant Community: Earlier this week, the Huffington Post reported that Senator Rubio was encouraging fellow Republican Senators to hold back support for the Senate immigration bill until it takes on “a more conservative bent.” In addition, Senator Rubio is now pushing for policy changes that seek to upset the carefully negotiated and bipartisan compromise that he himself helped to forge.  In a move certain to erode the trust with fellow Republicans and Democrats that make up the Gang of Eight, Senator Rubio now is pushing for a number of noxious amendments, including new and onerous back taxes and English language requirements, which, if adopted, would severely restrict access to initial legalization and eventual citizenship.  This would mean millions of fewer immigrants would likely be able to qualify for reform.  Coming from a Senator who needs reform to pass in order to help his party and himself, his recent performance calls into question his trustworthiness as an ally and his leadership acumen.
  • John Cornyn’s Poison Pill Threatens the Heart of Bill: While there is broad bipartisan support for strengthening the border security measures in the bill, Senator Cornyn’s border security amendment is a thinly-disguised effort to thwart the path to citizenship – the bill’s popular heart and an essential component of workable immigration reform.  As Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, Cornyn’s amendment “is designed for the express purpose of killing the bill.”  As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said of the Cornyn amendment, it “would leave millions who aspire to become citizens in indefinite limbo.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ), stated about the Cornyn amendment: “Hopefully we can have an alternative that satisfies some of the concerns without killing the bill.…It’s not possible for us to support his amendment as it is presently written because it is a poison pill.”  Now members of the Senate Gang of Eight bill are joining forces once again to come up with a plan that achieves consensus on the bill’s border provisions without threatening the path to citizenship.  As Sargent aptly characterizes these new developments today: “The prospects for immigration reform rest on a simple question: Are Republicans prepared to accept reform that includes a path to citizenship without hard border security triggers as necessary pre-conditions for it to proceed, or aren’t they?”
  • Danger Alert for GOP Brand: Jeff Sessions is the Face of the Party — And Driving It Off the Demographic Cliff:  After having his proposed amendments soundly defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee markup process, leading anti-immigrant Senator Jeff Sessions has now adopted a tactic of delay on the Senate floor, hoping to derail the bill’s momentum through procedural roadblocks.  He won’t let amendments get votes this week.  Undoubtedly, next week he will complain that not enough amendments have been considered.  Add this to his recent distortions, such as his recent claim that “The federal government has reached a point now where virtually no one is being deported except those being convicted of serious crimes” (a stunningly false claim in light of the record-high 409,000 immigrants deported last fiscal year).  The longer that Sessions remains center stage for the Republican Party on immigration, the worse it is for their effort to modernize their brand image among Latino voters.  As the Latino Decisions poll found, anti-reform statements by Senator Sessions diminished the GOP’s standing with Latino voters by a whopping 72%.

The three senators, each in their own way, are threatening a legislative project that is critical to rehabilitating the GOP’s national prospects.  As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Patricia Murphy of the Daily Beast, “From a political point of view, if this bill fails because the Republican Party doesn’t seem to have been practical, doesn’t seem to have been willing to admit that 11 million people are here and they’re not going to self-deport, we’ll pay a heavy price in 2016.  It will be almost impossible.”