Illegal Immigration Debate Splits the GOP Yet Again
Policy + Politics

Illegal Immigration Debate Splits the GOP Yet Again

Getty Images/iStockphoto/TFT

Immigration reform has been Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) pet issue since he entered the Senate. He was one of the Gang of 8 that drafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship. Many expected Rubio to ride the immigration issue to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Late last week, however, Rubio pulled an about-face. He no longer supports the bill be once championed.

“At this point, the most realistic way to make progress on immigration would be through a series of individual bills,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told Breitbart News last Saturday. Any effort to use a limited bill as a ruse to trigger a conference that would then produce a comprehensive bill would be counterproductive.”


According to experts on both sides of the issue, the real reason for Rubio’s flip-flop was tea party opposition to the path to citizenship contained in the Senate bill. The most conservative faction of the GOP views this path as a de facto gift of U.S. citizenship to people who entered the country illegally.

“It seems like Republicans are being held hostage by a minority of conservative members of Congress,” said Kica Matos, spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) said Wednesday. “The tea party seems to be what’s holding them back.” 

As a whole, the Republican Party is not against finding a way to legitimize the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.  Moderate Republicans, libertarians, the party’s business wing, and stalwarts such as Grover Norquist all support immigration reform.

However, the most conservative members have made it clear they will not support any bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for those who came to the United States illegally. They insist they would only support piecemeal bills that address immigration reform, not a comprehensive package.

“I care about the sovereignty of the United States of America and what it stands for, and not an open-door policy,” Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) said recently.

Now, with lobbyists on each side of the issue flooding Capitol Hill to make their case, the fault lines within the GOP have been exposed. The path they choose to take will go a long way toward determining the future direction of the party. They can either alienate illegal immigrants – a direct refutation of recommendations made in the wake of the 2012 presidential election, or they could extend an olive branch to the Latinos while pleasing the business wing of the party. 


Business leaders arrived on Capitol Hill earlier this week to push for comprehensive reform. Some 600 leaders from 40 states plan to meet with GOP lawmakers throughout the week. They believe immigration reform would ultimately provide an economic benefit to the country, along with cheap labor for a generation.

"It’s time for members of both parties to tackle this issue and pass bipartisan immigration legislation that will strengthen our economy, create jobs, and keep America’s future bright. Our country cannot afford to wait any longer for smart reform,” John Feinblatt, chief policy advisor to Michael R. Bloomberg and Chairman of the Partnership for a New American Economy, said in a statement released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber backs comprehensive reform.


Unlikely allies, including a group of evangelical ministers who arrived this week to lobby for reform, have joined business leaders. At the same time, pro immigration groups are pushing House lawmakers to take up a comprehensive bill.

"Traditional pillars of the Republican Party, such as business leaders and Evangelicals, are working to pressure House Republicans to take up immigration reform and, in fact, they are doing so aggressively,” said Elizabeth Durden, an assistant professor of sociology at Bucknell University.

 “They, along with many others, are also arguing the ethical reasons for reform: we have more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in the United States. They're the parents of American citizens, and they need to be made part of our social fabric.”

Bob Dane, communications director at the right-leaning Federation for American Immigration Reform, says the lingering wounds of the Republicans’ debt ceiling miscalculation loom large in this debate.

“The recent government shutdown ended badly for the Republicans and emboldened the Democrats to push hard and fast for reform,” he said. 

He said it remains unclear whether the House will take up comprehensive reform or take the piecemeal approach. But the choice Republicans make will go a long way toward determining the party’s direction in the future. 

“Immigration is probably the last issue that [House Speaker John] Boehner has a chance to make amends with conservative voters,” he said. “The GOP is committing party suicide with amnesty, and they’re starting to realize it.”