It isn't going away.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Republicans May Never Get Past Immigration

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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Donald Trump has run the most anti-immigrant presidential campaign in modern memory. Hillary Clinton has run the most pro-immigrant campaign. After November, something’s gotta give.

If Trump wins, of course, all bets are off. Neither a wall running the length of the southern border nor a mass deportation of undocumented immigrants is likely. Yet both are possible. Beyond that, who can tell? Trump’s policies are deployed as performance enhancers, not blueprints for governing.

Clinton, on the other hand, has promised to introduce immigration reform in her first 100 days in office. “Reform” is a malleable concept. But it consists of three basic elements: investment in increased border security in the Southwest (or at least in security theater, since actual security is at an all-time high); a path to legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants with many years of U.S. residence; and a liberalized visa process for U.S. companies recruiting foreigners. That’s the guts of the bipartisan Gang of Eight plan, which was passed by the Senate in 2013 and subsequently buried by the House. 

Democrats, like Clinton, have become overwhelmingly pro-reform. A few pro-immigration Republicans are still willing to join them. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently told Politico, “I’m going to take the Gang of Eight bill out, dust it off and ask anybody and everybody who wants to work with me to make it better to do so.”

If Republicans hold the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan will be under enormous pressure from corporate supporters and the GOP elite to pass legislation. He can do that with votes from Democrats and a minority of Republicans. He will be under equal or greater pressure to resist such reform from his party’s Trumpian base, which is anxious about augmenting the nation’s nonwhite citizenry and will fight any plan that does so. In the last Congress, the Trumpians crushed the opposition. Then they dominated the presidential primary. 

It’s unclear that they will lose the intra-party battle anytime soon. A new Pew poll suggests that Trump is no weaker among Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney was in 2012, or John McCain was in 2008. Other polls present a more harrowing picture. In any case, it’s unlikely that a Republican can win the White House without performing better among Hispanics and Asians, the nation’s fastest-growing electoral blocs. Writing about Trump’s demographic challenge in the crucial state of Florida, Nate Cohn said:

Mr. Trump has alienated Hispanic voters, making the last decade of demographic shifts even more potent. According to The Upshot’s estimates, Mr. Trump is losing among Hispanic voters in Florida by a 30-point margin, up from Mr. Romney’s 22-point deficit in similar estimates of 2012. (The estimates are based on a combination of pre-election polling, election results and demographic data.)

Some savvy, experienced immigration advocates believe Republicans are one presidential defeat from surrender on immigration. Marshall Fitz wrote, via e-mail:

Donald Trump has transformed the election into a referendum on deportation versus legalization and walls versus bridges. When he loses by huge margins and turbocharges engagement of the Latino electorate, the national mandate for progressive immigration reform will be unmistakable.

To Frank Sharry, another veteran immigration activist, neutralizing the immigration issue is the only way for Republicans to avoid what Graham has called a “demographic death spiral” and compete as a national party. “It will be an existential moment of truth for Ryan and the GOP,” Sharry said, via e-mail. “Pass reform and weather the Trumpian storm on their way to becoming a modernizing party, or cave once again and slide inexorably into permanent minority status.”

Fitz is optimistic. “My prediction is that Trump’s thrashing with Latino and Asian voters will be so overwhelming that it forges a fundamental shift in the electoral map,” he said via e-mail. “The only way for Republicans to re-establish a viable national foothold and avoid relegation to regional party status will be an about-face on immigration.”

This especially makes political sense if you assume that Republicans will remain incapable of appealing to nonwhite voters in any other way. Surely, there is nothing in the GOP policy cupboard that competes with immigration reform as a signaling device to nonwhites. Ryan’s agenda is devoid of voting rights protection or other appeals to nonwhite voters. His fiscal policies transfer benefits from the (disproportionately nonwhite) poor to the (disproportionately white) wealthy.

But what if Republicans conclude that using immigration as a signal isn’t worth an influx of millions of new nonwhite citizens, or at least their offspring? Or if House restrictionists tell Ryan that he can have reform or the speakership -- but not both? Each is a plausible outcome.

If Clinton wins, and the Senate flips to the Democrats, the House majority will likely shrink. A smaller GOP conference will almost certainly be more conservative, more Southern, more anti-immigrant, more Trumpian in its hostility toward nonwhites.

After all, the racial animus validated and normalized by Trump won’t simply disappear if Trump loses. He has raised the party’s temperature. So while Sharry, Fitz and others have a good bit of political logic on their side, GOP immigration restrictionists may bring concentrated numbers and renewed commitment to the immigration battle. In which case, all those waiting years for the Republican fever to break may discover, once again, that the patient adamantly prefers not to get well. 

(Corrects quote attribution in eighth paragraph.)

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