Immigration Bill Splits the GOP, Forcing a Showdown
Policy + Politics

Immigration Bill Splits the GOP, Forcing a Showdown

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Immigration reform was supposed to entice Latinos into the Republican fold, a needed change after overwhelming minority support helped President Obama crush challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Top GOP strategists such as Karl Rove took up the call, as did Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in a post-election autopsy released in March. Possible presidential contenders such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeb Bush hitched their political fortunes to an immigration overhaul.

But that outstretched hand increasingly looks like a clenched fist to many Hispanics.

Senate Republicans are undermining themselves  by trying to push tough amendments onto the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform plan to scuttle efforts to create a decade-long pathway to citizenship for as many as 11 million illegal immigrants.

“It’s somewhat of a shock to see the Republicans allowing themselves to be painted as anti-immigrant through some of these actions,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the research and policy firm Latino Decisions. “And the reason it’s a shock is that a huge part of their loss in 2012 was because they did so poorly with Latinos and because of the positions taken during the primary by Gov. Romney.”

“Our data have revealed very clearly that through Rubio or Jeb Bush or [John] McCain and others they have the ability to rehabilitate their image and to increase their numbers – it’s absolutely a possibility,” he added. “But they’re at this crossroads, and this is the absolute worst time for them to be running afoul of Latino voters.”


“The Republicans need to solve a political problem with Latinos – and failure to do so just won’t cut it,” said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group supporting the “Gang of Eight” proposal. “They won’t get credit for an effort that falls short and they will get blamed if the bill holds citizenship hostage to unreasonable enforcement demands.”

As the details of the bill are getting debated this week on the Senate floor, Republicans are struggling to appease their current base of older, white voters and not alienate the diverse electorate of a decade from now that leans heavily toward Democrats.

Led by Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Charles Grassley of Iowa, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, these hardliners already see the potential for amnesty under the “Gang of Eight” as compromising the law. They have pressed for changes that could either sink the legislation or create insurmountable hurdles for achieving legal status. This would squander both the Hispanic vote and the potential economic boost from reform, which Republicans such as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have been banking on.

GOP opponents say that even with the billions of dollars slated to beef up border security, the triggers to assess progress, and the launch of an e-Verify system for employers, the bill doesn’t do enough to combat illegal immigration. And they say the “amnesty” provisions of the bill would create a huge drain on government social programs

Cornyn told The Fiscal Times that he views the previous1986 immigration reform and 1996 effort for a “biometric” entry system as failed attempts to secure the border. To avoid repeating those “mistakes,” the Senate Minority Whip is promoting his so-called “Results” amendment to require full operational control of the U.S.-Mexican border by the Department of Homeland Security before allowing illegal immigrants to even begin the lengthy process of acquiring legal status or seeking full citizenship.

It’s his way to force a lockdown on the Mexican border, since failure would put the lives of 11 million—who lawmakers say cannot be deported en masse—in limbo.

“We have to show them [the public] something that will guarantee as much as humanly possible a result,” Cornyn said. “Everybody is going to be putting pressure on the bureaucracy and the executive branch to get that done in order to hit that threshold because that is very important to a large number of people.”

Apprehensions of illegal border crossers increased 7.2 percent last year, from over 324,000 in fiscal 2011 to 364,768 in 2102, although they routinely exceeded 1 million before the Great Recession. Multiple analyses estimate that roughly half of those crossing the border are caught

Rubio disappointed some members of the "Gang of Eight" by saying Cornyn's proposal is worth exploring. But he is expected to offer an alternative on border security more acceptable to members of the bipartisan coalition. Democratic critics including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) call Cornyn’s amendment a “poison pill” with an unrealistically high bar that would delay the path to citizenship indefinitely.

The Gang of Eight bill says that Homeland Security must simply have a plan in place within six months to eventually reach those same goals before the government can begin processing undocumented workers for legal status. 

Asked how these and other similar amendments square with the plea from top Republicans to reach out to Hispanics, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) remarked, “I’m not sure that most of the Republicans in the Senate got that memo. “I think we all are aware that they’re trying to kill the bill,” she told The Fiscal Times last week. “This isn’t a meaningful effort to improve the bill. This is an effort to make sure the bill doesn’t pass.”

Meanwhile, the Republican-majority House has become a roadblock for immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said he welcomes a comprehensive overhaul, but the rhetoric and actions of many in his caucus seem geared more toward penalizing undocumented workers than incorporating them into the country.

Earlier this month, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) attached an amendment to a House bill that ordered Homeland Security to begin deporting the children of illegal immigrants, an attempt to overrule Obama's previous executive order to halt deporting this group. The amendment passed with 221 Republican votes and three Democrat votes.

Republicans have little room for error in their courtship of Hispanics. Romney lost last year despite getting 59 percent of the white vote, while 71 percent of Latinos cast their ballots for Obama. The importance of the Hispanic vote will increase with each election cycle, as their share of the population surges from 17 percent to 31 percent by 2060, according to Census Bureau projections. At the same time, whites will plunge from 63 percent to 43 percent of the country.

This transformation could even threaten the lock Republicans have on Cornyn’s home state of Texas. As the Hispanic population continues to surge in the Lone Star State, Democrats could become dominant between 2020 and 2025, the Texas state demographer Lloyd Potter told Bloomberg News.

A March poll by Latino Decisions found that 58 percent of Hispanics ranked immigration reform as an important issue for Congress and the president, compared to just 38 percent saying the economy was important.

The organization followed up with a survey this month finding that “53 percent of [Hispanics] become less favorable toward the Republican if they block the bill and the President issues an executive policy solution.” That same poll also revealed that negative rhetoric from Republican lawmakers such as Alabama’s Sessions and Cruz of Texas hurt the party’s reputation among Hispanics.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that “obviously” the demographics alone dictate the importance of passing reform. Without it, Republicans will not be able to vie for the White House.

“I’ve stated thousands of times that it doesn’t get a single Hispanic vote, but it puts us on a level playing field where we can compete for Hispanic votes,”  McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, told the Fiscal Times.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a skeptic of the legislation, helped to pass the measure out of the Judiciary Committee last month after winning last minute concessions   to relax some restrictions on high-tech companies that seek to hire foreign engineers and computer programmers.

Hatch said he is now working closely with co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on other amendments that he insists must be attached to the bill   in order to win over more Republicans. Gang members need at least 60 votes to pass the bill in the full Senate. But Hatch argues that the measure will need 70 votes or more in order to force conservatives in the House to reconsider their opposition to immigration reform – and that will mean accepting some of the tough amendments being offered up by conservative Republicans.

“I don’t think anybody wants to make it so difficult that [illegal immigrants] can’t get on a pathway to citizenship,” Hatch told the Fiscal Times last week. “The amendments I want are really reasonable amendments. They’re not punitive; they’re not ‘poison pills.’ They basically will help bring people on board.”