Republicans, riding high in Washington and in most state capitals, are sitting on a time bomb: immigration.
There’s a division coursing through the party; many of the Tea Party types and social conservatives believe the tough-on- immigration posture paid dividends in the November congressional elections and want to ratchet up the pressure. Congressional leaders want to put the issue on the back burner.
Thus the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, plans to assail Attorney General Eric Holder for opposing Arizona’s anti-immigration measure, and push to enact more punitive laws. Simultaneously, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio made sure the chairmanship of the immigration subcommittee was denied to Representative Steve King, the virulently anti-immigration congressman from Iowa who in calling for an electric fence to be erected on the border likened illegal immigrants to “livestock.” King complained that Boehner is soft on the issue.
Over the weekend, Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman held a conference to plan more effective Republican outreach to Latino voters. This coincides with plans by newly muscular Republican majorities in more than a dozen state capitals for Arizona-type legislation to crack down on undocumented workers.
‘Very Strategically Situated’
Hispanics are the fastest-growing slice of the American electorate, and they are more numerous in states that are gaining electoral votes with the changing population. Latinos are “very strategically situated,” says Paul Taylor, who directs the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, which conducts the most comprehensive look at attitudes and issues affecting Latinos.
It isn’t an issue easily put on hold. There are constant reminders of its urgency, including the tragic murders in Tucson last weekend. Although this isn’t directly connected to the mass shooting, the federal judge who was killed had been threatened because of an immigration ruling; the local sheriff said that controversies over immigration had made his state a “Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
And the core Republican base will make sure the issue doesn’t go away. There has been pressure on party politicians such as ex-Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who attended the Bush-Coleman conference this weekend, to take a tougher line. Several months ago, he embraced changing the 14th Amendment so it wouldn’t automatically grant citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents.
This Republican base insists the immigration crisis is getting worse and is being ignored by the Obama administration. Actually, the number of undocumented workers -- critics prefer to call them illegal aliens -- is down a little. In Arizona, the epicenter of the controversy, the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents is up and overall crime has fallen.
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has deported more than 780,000 undocumented immigrants, an increase of more than 120,000 compared with the last two years of the Bush administration, and the number of criminals deported is more than 50 percent higher.
The anti-immigration faction of the Republican Party dismisses those numbers, demanding more raids and roundups, which have been curbed. They say their success in the 2010 elections proved the party doesn’t have a Latino problem. Prominent Hispanic Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico won resounding victories and, according to the exit polls, the share of the Republican vote represented by Hispanics actually rose compared with two and four years earlier.
The exit poll data, however, have been adjusted, and a number of experts express skepticism that the Republican Latino vote reached 38 percent, the latest projection, last November. Moreover, 2010 was a political tsunami favoring Republicans, probably not the best gauge.
Most experts say the party, as of today, is poised to capture no more than one-third of the vote in the next national election, and Latinos could make up between 9 percent and 10 percent of the electorate, up from 7.4 percent in 2008. That could spell trouble for Republicans in swing states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
Democrats further believe that if the opposition enacts a number of anti-immigration laws in the states and is seen as immigration-bashing in Washington, it will be more lopsided. Advocates of overhauling immigration laws like Frank Sharry of America’s Voice long for their once robust Republican support.
Five years ago, the so-called Dream Act -- which granted a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military or graduate from college -- overwhelmingly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, with conservatives like Orrin Hatch of Utah leading the way. There were 22 Republican votes for the McCain-Kennedy immigration-overhaul measure in 2006. Both Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as the latter’s brother, Jeb, are avowedly pro-immigration.
The tone has changed: Only three Republicans supported the Dream Act when it was killed last December; the party’s presidential aspirants are closer to Lamar Smith’s positions, with some contending they can appeal to Latinos in other ways.
“Most of these Republicans now think they can put Marco Rubio on a ticket and not have to change any of their views,” Sharry says. “They’ve got to do a lot more than that.”
‘Future of Republicans’
Reverend Sam Rodriguez, who leads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and actively works with leading Republicans, agrees. “Republican opposition to immigration reform jeopardizes the whole movement to Republicans; the very future of Republicans and even the conservative movement is embedded in how they deal with immigration.”
“This is a challenging task,” he adds, given the hostility associated with Republicans in recent years. “There needs to be a reconciliatory olive branch to the Hispanic movement, someone with moral authority like John Boehner has to say, ‘We apologize.’”
That’s unlikely. Yet despite the huge gains for Republicans last November and the strong anti-immigration element, there is a possibility of fashioning a compromise that beefs up border protection and offers some initial steps toward a realistic pathway to citizenship for the 11.5 million currently undocumented immigrants.
There is one Republican uniquely suited to lead such an effort: Senator John McCain of Arizona. That would enable him to escape his post-2008 sulk, unify a few disparate elements in his troubled home state, and refurbish that maverick image he once cherished.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)