Republicans pay heed.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Reining In Ryan, Stopping Rubio

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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House Speaker Paul Ryan has done what was expected of him: He blamed President Barack Obama for Republicans' inability to pass immigration legislation.

Actually, House Republicans have proved eminently capable of passing legislation; they already passed an immigration plan this year. They voted in January to strip undocumented immigrants, including the "Dreamers" who were brought to the U.S. as children, of the protection from deportation that Obama had extended to them in a 2012 executive action.

That vote represented the will of the Republican conference, which opposes legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. But chasing guiltless Dreamers out of the country sends the wrong message in a national election. So Ryan is required to repeat the cover story that his predecessor designed.

In the hours after Obama's 2012 re-election, Speaker John Boehner said a "comprehensive approach" to immigration reform was "long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

Boehner had no trust issues. Republicans were traumatized by Obama's dominance of the Hispanic and Asian vote, which contributed to his five-million-vote victory in a race that many Republicans had expected to win. The Senate subsequently passed bipartisan immigration legislation with 14 Republican votes.

When action moved to the House, Obama kept mostly quiet on the issue to give Boehner maximum room to maneuver. But restrictionists in the House Republican conference shut down the process. And once it was clear that House Republicans would blow up any effort that provided relief to undocumented immigrants, Boehner shifted rhetorical gears. The House's failure to support the Senate's bipartisan solution wasn't due to restrictionist and anti-immigrant forces in his party, he said. It was due to "widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws."

Boehner's excuse doubled as prophecy. With no chance for legislation, Obama pushed even further on executive action, heading into uncharted legal territory to shield millions more from deportation. (His executive actions are now tied up in court.)

The standoff has only grown starker. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that undocumented immigrants, who in Obama's first term were deported at a rapid clip, are here to stay. "These people are here, they live among us, and they are not going away," he told an audience at Rice University in June.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has promised mass deportation to rid the country of undocumented immigrants and has moved Republicans even further right on the issue. The divide is no fluke: In a CNN/ORC poll in July, 63 percent of Republicans said they would support a plan for "stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here" while only 34 percent said they would back a plan "that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents." Among Democrats and independents, the positions were reversed.

Between Johnson's rock and Trump's hard place you can find a jagged little spot with room enough for Paul Ryan and the Republican elite. They're desperate to attract more Hispanic and Asian votes than Mitt Romney mustered in 2012, but fearful of provoking a backlash from Republican nativists. 

The first test of whether immigration crushes Republican dreams may well be Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who has emerged as the auxiliary candidate in case of Jeb Bush emergency. Rubio ran against "amnesty" in 2010, supported immigration reform in the Senate in 2013, then turned against it when the political tide shifted. In the process he earned the mistrust of both the immigration opponents he burned initially and the advocates he betrayed later. 

Immigration restrictionists have already brought Ryan to heel. And they have helped keep Bush from gaining traction in the presidential contest. If they also manage to arrest Rubio's momentum, they will remove any remaining doubt about which faction controls the Republican agenda. Satisfying their hard demands while scrambling to cobble an electoral majority in 2016 will take more than a little white lie. It will take a great white wave. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net