Will Republicans' New Love of Immigrants Lead to Reform?

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks to new U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Daughters of the American Revolution Administration Building in Washington on this March 27, 2006 file photo Photograph by Chuck Kennedy/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

If anyone doubts that Republican rhetoric is now firmly focused on the benefits of immigration, check out the latest comments from former President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s campaign chief. At a Dec. 4 conference hosted by the Dallas Federal Reserve, Bush stressed the “importance of immigrants to economic growth.” As he put it: “Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical gap in our labor market. They work hard for a chance for a better life.”

This follows comments released by Harvard on Dec. 3, in which Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades expressed regret over his candidate’s stance on immigration. Rhoades, who had made the remarks at Harvard’s Campaign Decision Makers Conference on Nov. 29, attributed the hardline stance to the perceived threat from Governor Rick Perry of Texas, although that threat diminished long before the election. (An equally telling comment at the Harvard event came from Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, who expressed surprise over the dearth of white men voting in swing states such as Ohio.)

Taken together, it’s another sign that Republicans want to distance themselves from the focus on immigrants as potential threats to American jobs, security, and way of life.

What’s unclear is how the softening stance on immigrants will play out in Congress. Republicans took the lead with the STEM Jobs Act bill that passed a House vote last week and promises up to 55,000 more green cards for foreigners who get science and tech degrees from U.S. colleges. But the bill’s elimination of the visa lottery has angered Democrats and makes it unlikely to pass in the Senate.

Still, the overall push to please immigrants signals a distinct move away from a strategy that emphasizes enforcement to what Bush described as “a benevolent spirit” in handling immigration. Of course, the former president has long been associated with a softer view on the topic. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, compared with the 27 percent share that Romney took, and had pushed for measures that would ease entry for guest workers. But he’s been largely silent on the issue since leaving office.

“Not only do immigrants help build our economy,” Bush said at the Dallas Fed, “they invigorate our soul.” He then talked about the “honor and privilege of meeting newly arrived” immigrants while describing a naturalization ceremony as “an awesome thing.”

Having proven to be such a powerful force in the November election, Latino voters can see they’re winning politicians’ hearts. What they don’t know is how those warm feelings will translate into action. Luckily, their suitors aren’t limited to Washington. On Dec. 4, the Illinois Senate passed a Democrat-sponsored bill that could enable some 250,000 illegal immigrants to have special driver’s licenses, although it is unclear whether the bill will pass a House vote. It is in just such votes that Republicans’ new love of immigrants may be put to the test.

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