Immigration reform is being discussed again on Capitol Hill. At his inauguration, President Barack Obama declared, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” Senior Republicans, too, seem ready to make a deal. They sorely need to do so, because Mitt Romney’s damaging policy of self-deportation ensured that Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and demographic changes mean unless the party changes tack fast it will keep losing. But there is an enormous gulf between what the Republicans need to do and what the base will go along with. What is at stake is whether the GOP remains a party of government or becomes a mere protest movement.
Although he does not have a majority in the House, the president appears in no mood to compromise. He wants to help create a more tolerant America and believes he has the country behind him. Recent polling confirms that his views on gay marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration and other social issues all chime with a majority of the electorate, and he is determined to press his case. His inauguration speech spelled out the direction he is heading in, and his Feb. 12 State of the Union address is expected to chart the course. He appears to be relishing the chance to embarrass the Republicans if they stand in the way of progress. Catching Obama’s new sense of purpose, House Speaker John Boehner has become convinced the president wants “to annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove [it] into the dustbin of history.”
Senior Republicans appear to be aware that they are out of step with America and need to make significant changes to policies and their public image if they are to stand a chance of winning the midterm elections in 2014 or the White House in 2016. Former Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice believes “the Republican Party certainly has to stop turning off large segments of the population” and urges it to face “the big issue,” immigration reform. Says Senator Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.): “We’re in a death spiral with Hispanic voters because of rhetoric around immigration.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who burned his fingers pushing for immigration reform in 2006-07, thinks “we have to do immigration reform … There is no doubt whatsoever that the demographics are not on our side.” Conservative commentator Seth Mandel suggests it may be too late: “When they arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their back, desperate for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children, one party said, ‘Come on in,’ and the other said, ‘Turn around and go back.’”
There are good business and economic reasons to embrace immigration reform. The GOP’s libertarian wing, following the dictums of Emile Levasseur and Friedrich Hayek, who advocated a free market in labor, has long understood the importance of a making it easier for immigrants to find work here. Rand Paul, heir to his father Ron’s mantle as leader of the GOP libertarians, argues for bringing illegals into the fold. “If they’re willing to work, willing to pay taxes, I think we need to normalize those who are here,” he said. George W. Bush’s commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, promises to raise millions from big business to press for changes in the law to allow illegal immigrants to stay. “We have millions of job openings that go unfilled,” he said. “Either the workers come here to fill them or those jobs go somewhere else.” Small businesses, particularly high-tech startups demanding highly qualified technicians, also want reform. “About 95 percent of the applications I get, I have to turn away because I can’t get them a visa,” said Ash Rust, leader of an entrepreneurs group lobbying to relax immigration rules.
So, if so many senior Republicans and Republican donors and a majority of all Americans want to do a deal on immigration, who stands in their way? The party’s rank and file. While the portion of Americans opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has slumped from 55 percent in 2011 to 43 percent today, and even a majority of Republicans now agree that reform needs to be achieved, die-hard opponents remain within the Republican Party. One in three Americans continues to oppose an amnesty for illegals, with one in four “strongly” opposed, but Tea Party members are most vociferous in their opposition to immigration reform. Just 1 in 10 Tea Party types agree there should be a path to citizenship for illegals, compared with 24 percent among Americans at large, while 17 percent disagree. As with gun control and raising taxes, Republicans who dare defy their base may find themselves facing primary opponents spouting more populist, less tolerant views.