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With Expectations for Reform Sky-High, Is the House GOP Serious About Immigration Reform or Merely Play-Acting?

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Jorge Ramos Lays Fate of Reform at Feet of John Boehner; Rep. Trey Gowdy Suggests the GOP Should Stake Out Positions but Not Go to Conference

Immigration reform is the top priority of Latino voters and expectations are sky-high among Latino immigrants hoping to get on a path to legal status and eventual citizenship.  But the conventional wisdom in DC is that the House GOP will block reform.  Given these dynamics, what will happen if the House does not deliver on the promise of reform with a path to citizenship?

According to the most influential voice in Spanish language media, Univisión anchor Jorge Ramos, if reform fails the Latino community and Spanish language media will blame Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and his Republican House colleagues.  As Ramos said to Greg Sargent of the Washington Post: “Truth or not, the message repeated constantly in the Hispanic media is that the approval of any kind of immigration reform in the House depends on Speaker Boehner…He is the man, Latinos know it, and won’t forget it.” Ramos also stated, “Like it or not, the Hispanic media perceives that approving or rejecting immigration reform is in the hands of John Boehner.  When you listen to local radio stations and even national media, most of us are concentrated on John Boehner.  We don’t even have a problem pronouncing his name.”  He adds, ”Immigration reform is a prerequisite for a new look at Republicans by the Hispanic community,” and notes failure to give reform a vote in the House would be, in Sargent’s description, “political suicide.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the Chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, suggests that the best GOP strategy would be to clarify where they stand but block reform in the end.  He tells National Review that the House of Representatives should move forward on immigration legislation, but asserts ”that doesn’t mean you go to conference” with the Senate.  Of note, Rep. Gowdy makes a political case that many House Republicans should appear to advance immigration reform, stating, “If I were in California in a swing district…I would at least want to say, ‘The party I represent has the following positions.’  And I don’t think that in every case, arguing that the current law is sufficient is the best position.”  However, his reluctance to go to conference means that Rep. Gowdy’s priority is to deflect blame.  It’s an argument for blocking reform with a thin veneer of political gamesmanship layered on top.

What would happen if the strategy of “pretend yes but get to no” prevails?  First, many in the rising electorate – Latinos, Asian Americans, young people and more – would probably conclude, once and for all, that the Republican Party simply does not like people of color.  Stanford Professor Keith Humphreys compares the current debate in the GOP to the debate within the California GOP in the early 1990s.  Some wanted the party to modernize and reach out while others, led by then-Governor Pete Wilson, argued that race-based appeals to white voters was the best way to go.  He concludes:

Wilson and those who advised him to double-down on white voters did lasting damage to the California Republican Party from which it has never recovered.  In the minds of much of the population of this minority-majority state, the GOP is the party of white people who don’t like non-white people, a branding that — fair or not — repulses most minority voters and no small number of white voters as well.

In the absence of reform, who will define the GOP to this rising electorate?  As we saw at  yesterday’s anti-immigrant rally of Tanton Network nativists, the voice and face of the Republicans Party will be its vocal and visible anti-immigrant wing.  In what can only be characterized as terrible news for the GOP leaders who want the party to shed its reputation for intolerance, the Steve King “Hell No, Keep the Status Quo” Caucus seems increasingly comfortable cozying up to truly fringe elements.  As George Zornick of The Nation reported, the former president of the Tea Party of America, Ken Crow, stated the following at yesterday’s rally: “From those incredible blood lines of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and John Smith.  And all these great Americans, Martin Luther King.  These great Americans who built this country.  You came from them.  And the unique thing about being from that part of the world, when you learn about breeding, you learn that you cannot breed Secretariat to a donkey and expect to win the Kentucky Derby.  You guys have incredible DNA and don’t forget it.”

As Zornick assessed:

At minimum, Crow was making a crude nativist argument that people from other cultures have the heritage of a donkey, compared to our race-horse DNA.  And, although he worked in a Martin Luther King reference, the ‘breeding’ talk made it pretty tempting to see this in racial terms as well.  (Ironically, this rally was held in conjunction with the Black Leadership Alliance, a black pseudo-advocacy group created by Tanton.  The crowd was roughly one-third black, and was pretty quiet during all the breeding talk.)  Not only was this said in the presence of hundreds of people on Capitol Hill, but many important Republican politicians were present.  Senator Jeff Sessions, who helped lead the opposition to the immigration bill in the Senate, was directly behind me, glad-handing attendees, as I shot this video.  Congressman Steve King, who is taking up Session’s mantle in the House, was also there.  Both men spoke (Sessions is the keynote), and Senator Ted Cruz is also on the roster.  The rally was promoted by major conservative media figures like Laura Ingraham.

Concluded Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

The GOP has to wake up to the consequences of blocking reform.  Anything less than reform with a path to citizenship is a policy, political and economic failure of historic proportions.  The immigration system will remain dysfunctional, frustrating voters across the spectrum; the increased enforcement the GOP says it must have as part of reform will not be enacted into law; 11 million undocumented immigrants will continue to live as an underclass in America; the GOP’s reputation among all sorts of voters as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino will go from bad to worse; the House GOP’s reputation as most responsible for this ‘do nothing Congress’ will become cemented; and the economic benefits of reform – from economic growth to deficit reduction to improving the health of the social security system – will be discarded.  They will have no one to blame but themselves, and plenty of time to think about it from the confines of the political sidelines.