As the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives lick their wounds following their failure on Friday to advance a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security for the remainder of the fiscal year – their resistance driven by anger at the administration’s immigration policy – observers are taking stock of the GOP’s tortured relationship with the issue of immigration.
Its hardliners can’t abide the idea of a compromise that could be described as “amnesty,” and they won’t be moved by pleas from party leaders that their intransigence is doing the GOP short-term damage politically and long-term damage with the growing Hispanic portion of the electorate.
“For most of this year,” Rachel Morris wrote in Washington Monthly, “the Republican Party has been publicly waging an ugly internal fight over immigration. Like the president—and, polls show, most Americans—a bipartisan coalition in the Senate supports comprehensive reform. But House Republicans, fearful of their inflamed base, won’t budge from an enforcement-only measure.”
Oh, wait. Sorry. Morris wrote that in October. Of 2006.
Yes, that’s really how long this has been going on and, in fact, one could argue that things are actually worse today than they were when her article was published eight and a half years ago.
In 2015, House Republicans don’t even have an immigration bill to argue about. The closest they have come is the current fight over the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, which Republicans are trying to load up with riders that would block enforcement of the president’s executive actions lifting the threat of deportation from millions of illegal immigrants.
Those millions of immigrants, members of both parties generally admit, aren’t going to be deported anyway. Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., the five million or so Obama would allow to come out of the shadows are the lowest priority for an already overloaded enforcement system.
So, they are staying, regardless of the president’s executive order. The fight, in large part, seems to be over admitting that reality. And because the DHS funding bill has become the current loyalty test that the Republican base applies to its candidates, it has been taking up rather a lot of the oxygen in GOP policy discussions lately. That is particularly true among some GOP presidential hopefuls who have taken compromise positions on the issue in the past, most of whom could not be backpedalling harder or faster.
On Sunday morning, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who has quickly vaulted close to the top of the early running for the Republican nomination, turned 180 degrees from a position he had advocated as recently as 2013 when he told a newspaper reporter that offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship made sense.
“My view has changed,” Walker said when confronted with the statement by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. “I’m flat-out saying it. Candidates can say that.”
He told Wallace, “I don't believe in amnesty, and part of the reason why I've made that a firm position is I look at the way this president has mishandled that issue. I think the better approach is to enforce the laws and to give employers – job creators – the tools…to make sure the law is being upheld going forward.”
Last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was forced to ritually disown his former stance on immigration in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity reminded Rubio that he had admitted to “regretting” his support of a comprehensive immigration reform plan that allowed a path to legality for some immigrants.
Rubio readily agreed, and launched into full-throated appeal for ever more border enforcement. It turned out to be the beginning of a trend.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been criticized by fellow Republicans for supporting such things as in-state university tuition for illegals, used his time on stage at CPAC to talk tough about immigration border enforcement as well. He touted his decision to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border last year, steering far clear of his more moderate policies while serving as governor.
Rubio and Perry alike used the alleged deficiency of current border enforcement as an excuse to forestall any discussion of substantive immigration reform.
To his credit, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush walked into the lion’s den last and did admit at least one part of the obvious truth. “The simple fact is, there is no plan to deport 11 million people,” he told the CPAC audience. “We should give them a path to legal status, where they work, where they don’t receive government benefits, they don’t break the law, they learn English, and they make a contribution to our society.”
He quickly pivoted to a denunciation of the president’s executive orders and a call for more border enforcement. Bush suggested that the unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S. in droves last year ought to have been turned back at the border.
His past comments on the issue suggest he really believes there ought to have been a system in place to return them safely to their families, but at CPAC, the comment was left hanging without elaboration.
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