Immigration Foes Have Numbers, but No Strategy
On Tuesday, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes President Obama's various executive actions on undocumented workers, released a slew of new polls. They captured opinions from red or purple states that had elected Democratic senators—Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, Montana, Maine. In every case, voters told Zogby Analytics pollsters that they would side with the legislators trying to undo the president's orders.
"Senator Mark Warner opposed defunding the president's executive amnesty earlier this month, despite his previous assertions that such acts are unconstitutional," declared FAIR in its release of a Virginia poll. "By a 42 percent to 34 percent margin, Virginia voters want Warner to back up his earlier opposition to the president's amnesty programs by supporting defunding provisions in the Senate's DHS Appropriations bill."
The polls did not seem to move opinions in Washington. The same day they were released, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, released his plan to split the funding for the Department of Homeland Security from riders that would have defunded the president's executive orders. Democrats held a unified press conference, where most of the red-staters who'd been pressured by FAIR promised to oppose even the "compromise" plan. Both parties were effectively trashing the House Republican bill.
"Republicans have not done a particularly effective job of communicating what they want here," said Ira Mehlman, FAIR's national media director. "They let the president get out there first and explain his position with public events. I don’t understand why they haven’t turned the tables on the president and capitalized. It is baffling."
And it's less than conservatives did in a comparable standoff, the summer 2013 fight over whether or not to fund the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Initially, Republican leaders in the House had wanted to split the defunding from the must-pass appropriations bill. They were denied the votes for that from the GOP conference. At the same time, the conservative Heritage Action was hosting town halls around the country, putting pressure on Republicans to kill the ACA. Some members of the Senate, most famously Texas Senator Ted Cruz, joined them.
There have been no comparable Heritage Action rallies in the weekends or recesses of 2015. "This fight was set up by leadership when they opted for the cromnibus strategy," explained Heritage Action president Michael Needham in an email, "and it is a fight nearly every Republican promised their constituents both on the campaign trail and then again in December. In other words, it has been set up for months on the ground they chose."
Heritage Action will key-vote the DHS bill, knuckle-rapping the Republicans who don't go all the way to de-fund the executive orders. But it has not organized opposition to a "clean bill." Neither, really, has Cruz. He spent very little of last week's recess talking about the coming DHS fight. In a weekend speech to Republicans in Jackonsville, Florida, he focused on ISIS, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's advocacy for Common Core, and the president's Cuba policy thaw. None of the reports on Cruz's speech covered any remarks about immigration. The senator who deploys a #MakeDCListen hashtag when rallying the base has not even tweeted about the DHS fight since February 20.
Ironically, some of the problem might stem from a surprise Republican victory. On Feb. 17, a U.S. District Court judge in Texas ruled against DAPA, or the "executive amnesty" announced after 2014's midterms. The administration moved deliberately to oppose the ruling. At a GOP breakfast I attended in Greenville, South Carolina, on Feb. 18, several reliably conservative congressmen cited the ruling as a reason to block the president.
"Why in the world would you fund something that is unconstitutional?" asked Representative Trey Gowdy.
Representative Mick Mulvaney called the ruling a "complete win," but warned Republicans not to waste the victory. He talked about his commute, when he'd heard one radio station play a story about the court win, and another play a heart-tugging story about the plight of immigrants. Republicans, he said, needed to do less of the former and more of the latter. "If you hear us talk 10 percent about the Constitution and 90 percent about something else, that is because we are trying to win the war," he said.
But there was no grand co-ordination between Republicans, and no grassroots campaign putting everyone on notice. A few days after Mulvaney issued his warning, Texas Governor Greg Abbott would appear on ABC News and called the president a "dictator" who flouted laws. "There's no article or Bill of Rights in the Constitution that says compassion allows the president to circumvent the rules of the Constitution," he said—exactly what Mulvaney didn't want Republicans to say. Instead of asking Americans to rise up and win an argument, they were counting on courts.
"While the GOP leadership has been saying the right things when asked, it hasn't launched a public campaign, with defunding the amnesty as the top item on the various party web sites and twitter accounts, top people making the case on all the Sunday talk shows, etc.," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which also opposes the president's executive orders. "I suspect that's because of a number of factors. Their heart really isn't in the fight; they see it as simply a matter of base management. They don't mind having these people amnestied and like the idea of being able to blame it on Obama. And they're always in a fetal crouch about the Hispanic vote and don't want to seem 'mean' by really committing themselves to this fight."
For former Representative Tom Tancredo, this was nightmarish. The Colorado Republican had barnstormed against 2006 and 2007 attempts to pass immigration reform bills in Congress, then run a presidential campaign that helped shift the Republican argument on immigration further away from "amnesty." He remembered just how much energy there'd been on the right in those years.
"I remember phones ringing off the hook," he said. "I remember the intensity of the debate when we came home. I haven't seen anything significant in the area of grassroots lobbying for the House Republican position on the bill. Part of it, I think is a result of the fact that there was a lot less time to work with this than there was with Obamacare, for instance. There was a long time to prepare for that. But the matter of fact is that we did go through a recess, where the lobbying could have been loud and plentiful, and it wasn't."
Tancredo attributed this to a simple concept: Hopelessness. "I must admit, even I get discouraged when I think of the elections," he said. "The clearest possible message was sent: 'We want to stop Obama.' The Republican Party offered nothing in terms of attitude or ideas. The only thing there was an anti-Obama movement. When the Republicans choose not to heed the message, everybody gets discouraged. I have no doubt in my mind that in their heart of hearts, both Boehner and McConnell support the president's amnesty. Both of them are scoundrels and charlatans holding on to power pretending to live up to Republican principles."
And Tancredo, who has largely retired from politics at age 69, saw no easy way forward. "If I had the energy to run for president or start a new party, I'd do it, because this is just so frustrating," he said. "I look for some way to fight, and when the traditional pathway is, 'let's take over Congress and stop the dictator'—well, we do take over Congress, and we don't stop the dictator. This president is ignoring the Constitution of the United States. He is shredding it. Tell me a better use of the power of the power of the majority than to pass the damn bill and let the dictator defend his veto."
For more, read this QuickTake: U.S. Wrangles With Immigration Reform