The Republican Immigration Reform Problem

Cade Baxter

This could be the year that Republicans finally enact the sort of comprehensive immigration reform that is necessary to the survival of the party. By now, it is readily apparent that Republicans need to expand their electoral appeal beyond their overwhelmingly white, male base. In the 2012 presidential election, Republicans suffered overwhelming losses in every minority ethnic demographic, and as the country’s population is slowly becoming less Caucasian, results like that in future elections will mean certain doom for any prospects of consistently winning elections.

Obviously there is no fix-all solution, and any palliative measures that fail to address the underlying lack of appeal of the conservative agenda to these minority groups will ultimately prove futile in the long term. To have long term appeal to groups outside their traditional base, Republicans need to devote considerable time and energy towards improving their economic and social agendas and explaining just how those agendas are best for America as a whole. However, passing immigration reform will go a long way towards convincing those groups that Republicans are obstinately opposed to minorities, especially among Hispanics.

Fortunately, many of the most prominent members of the Republican Party seem to recognize this fact and are making effort to pass legislation for at least some sort of immigration reform. John Boehner recently hired Rebecca Tallent, the director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, to advise him on immigration. This is a solid indication that he is looking to shepherd immigration reform through the House sometime this year. His Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, also showed enthusiasm for some sort of immigration reform, even as voted against the bill put forth by the Gang of Eight this past summer. In addition, Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have separately been working on legislation to grant legal status to a significant portion of illegal immigrants. Both these men have conservative credentials as founding members of the GOP’s Young Guns program that helped elect many Tea Party and conservative candidates to the House in 2010, which could help them convince many of their peers in the House who would normally be unwilling to support their efforts.

Just as importantly, some of the people being eyed as possible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have been warming up to the idea of immigration reform. Winning a larger percentage of the Hispanic vote is much more crucial to them than to Republicans in the House; these future candidates must compete for votes across the country, whereas many representatives are in gerrymandered districts that make it fairly easy to win reelection regardless of their vote on immigration reform. A presidential candidates needs to appeal to as much of the general population as possible, and being viewed favorably by minority demographics thus becomes extremely important. Chris Christie recently reached a compromise with the Democratic legislature in his state to allow illegal immigrants in New Jersey to pay in-state tuition for state universities. While not the sort of broad reform that is needed on the national level, this does at least show that any immigration policy he would support would focus more on integrating illegal immigrants into American society rather than punishing and ostracizing them (incidentally, Christie already enjoys solid support from Hispanics, having received 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in last year’s gubernatorial election). Marco Rubio, a conservative darling, also demonstrated his willingness to reach out to Hispanic voters by risking a good deal of his political capital on pushing the Gang of Eight bill that he co-sponsored through the Senate. Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out for him, as the bill was dead on arrival in the House, but it is a good step in the right direction. Jeb Bush also recently wrote an op-ed hailing 2014 as the “blockbuster year that finally takes reform across the finish line.” While light on specific reforms that he supports, the piece does convey an enthusiasm on his part for immigration reform.

Of course, not everyone in the party shares this mindset; Ted Cruz, another name often mentioned in connection to 2016, has made it clear that he is staunchly opposed to passing any sort of immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And even if Republicans were able to pass immigration reform, it is unclear how much it would boost their approval ratings among Hispanics and other minorities. However, simply doing nothing is no longer a viable option for Republicans.

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