Not in the mood for a deal.

Photographer: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Republicans Can't Pass Immigration Reform

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The White House is preparing the nation for ambitious executive action on immigration by President Barack Obama. If Obama follows through (and not to would be political suicide), controversy will rage. Behind the shouting, the expected move will make some Democrats nervous. But it will prove especially vexing to Republican leaders. The reason is simple: Republicans must answer to the Republican base, and the only solution acceptable to the base is noxious to everyone else.

This month's midterm election featured historically low turnout and a far more Republican electorate than 2012 produced, or than 2016 surely will. Yet even in a conservative electorate, exit polls showed that 57 percent of voters agreed that “illegal immigrants working in the U.S.” should be offered a way to gain “legal status.”

While most voters support a pathway to legalization, a sizable minority -- 39 percent -- said that they support deportation instead. I asked Kimberly Elchlepp of CNN to check the crosstabs on the network's exit polling data. She did, e-mailing the following partisan breakdowns on voter support for giving immigrants a chance to apply for legal status versus support for deportation.

Democrats broke 76/20 in favor of legal status over deportation, and Independents were 57/38 in favor. Republicans broke the opposite way, with 57 percent supporting deportation and 38 percent supporting legal status.

Republican base voters are white, old, conservative and scared. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote last year after conducting a series of focus groups of evangelical and Tea Party Republicans, they view their party "losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities."

The base rallied to "take back" America from the usurpers in 2010. But in 2012, despite ample warnings about the 47 percent of takers, Obama was reelected, proving demographic perfidy is rampant. The recent Republican panics over border security and voting security -- for some reason voter ID laws and other restrictions only became necessary when minority voters became abundant -- are actually one and the same. The base feels it is under assault from without and within.

Republican leaders are skittish about openly endorsing deportation for millions of families. It has been only two years since the Republican National Committee said Republicans had to figure out how to make nice to immigrants. But the base rules Republican politics now. Obama gave Speaker of the House John Boehner a year and a half to produce immigration legislation, holding his fire throughout. Boehner couldn't master the anti-immigrant pressures in his conference, and his troops will be even less immigrant-friendly come January. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the small band of pro-immigration Republicans have headed for the hills. Senator John McCain, once a stalwart, now mumbles about a "secure border" when the subject arises.

So as much as Republican leaders might like to put the issue of immigration behind them, they can't. The base will demand punitive measures against undocumented immigrants, and Republican legislators will feel compelled to deliver them. Boehner and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell will probably try to temper harsh measures with softer ones -- increased visas for the technology industry, for example -- but the totality of any package that Republicans support will be toxic to Hispanics, immigrant groups and the White House.

Deporting undocumented immigrants by the millions is not going to happen anytime soon. It is too difficult, too unpopular and too cruel. But that's the outcome that the Republican base wants -- even if Republicans in Congress dance around the fact. In the end, Boehner and McConnell will register that hard truth, turn to face the beast whose fears they have so cynically cultivated and do what they know they must: blame everything on Obama.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net