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While Acknowledging the Problem is the First Step, GOP Needs to Take Action on Immigration Reform to Avoid Repeating the Mistakes of 2012
Tomorrow marks the two-year anniversary of Mitt Romney’s infamous embrace of “self-deportation,” the immigration policy he first articulated during a Republican primary debate in Tampa. While many Republicans have recognized the political damage inflicted by Romney’s immigration stance and have subsequently embraced real immigration reform, House action is needed to prove that the GOP has truly learned from its past mistakes.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Two years after Mitt Romney self-deported himself from the White House, the Republican Party has undergone an evolution on immigration that is both heartening and incomplete. There’s a growing recognition that the Republican Party has to pass immigration reform as way to rehabilitate their tarnished brand with Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters, but to date the Republican-led House has been slow to take up immigration reform. As observers like Dan Balz have recently reminded us, the Republican Party will continue to face an uphill climb to retake the White House until they reckon with the changing American electorate.”
Self-deportation is the brain-child of notorious anti-immigrant ring leaders Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State and author of Arizona’s and Alabama’s “show me your papers” laws. You may recall how gleeful Krikorian was after Mitt Romney endorsed that policy. You’ll most certainly recall how that worked out for Romney politically.
In large part due to his hardline immigration stance, Mitt Romney lost Latino voters to President Obama by a margin of 75%-23% (based on detailed polling conducted by Latino Decisions) or 71%-27% based on exit polls in the 2012 general election. Many of those close to the Romney campaign, including the candidate himself, grasped the political damage inflicted by his stance only after the fact. This past November, Mitt Romney acknowledged his campaign’s failings with Latino voters and endorsed some variety of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In a post-election forum held by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, former Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades admitted that the candidate’s hard-right tack on immigration during the primary was a mistake. The Republican National Committee (RNC) argued in its post-election autopsy report that the GOP needed to help pass immigration reform and that, “if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.” As Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said to National Journal’s Fawn Johnson, “My theory is that we can win in 2014 without resolving it. We can’t win in 2016 without resolving it.”
Recent signs have indicated that some in the GOP have learned lessons from the 2012 campaign. Twenty-nine Republican House Members have come out in support of citizenship and scores more have indicated their support for some sort of legal status. These developments followed by new positive comments from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC); Boehner’s hiring of Becky Tallent as his immigration advisor; and the Heritage Foundation’s hiring of pro-immigration economist Stephen Moore are all signs that the sands are shifting on immigration. But as players move into place, House Leadership needs to announce the start of the game.
Thus far, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the rest of House Leadership have put the future of the Party in a perilous position. The only immigration policy that has received a full vote in the House of Representatives since the 2012 election is an amendment in the same deportation-only vein: Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) amendment to defund the DACA program and subject DREAMers to deportation. But they can change that dynamic by turning a page from the days that King, Krikorian, and Kobach ruled the Party’s strategy on immigration, and advancing fair immigration reform this year.
Mitt Romney’s embrace of ‘self-deportation’ was the beginning of the end of the GOP’s lurch to the hard right on immigration. It showed, once and for all, that telling Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters that ‘we don’t like your kind around here’ is not a winning strategy. Nevertheless, the party is struggling to improve its tarnished brand, and runs the risk of cementing its anti-Latino, anti-immigrant reputation if blamed for blocking immigration reform. There’s really only one main way to show Latino voters and others close to the immigration debate that the GOP really has moved past its ‘self-deportation’ days, and that is to pass immigration reform and share credit for doing so.