Pete Wilson syndrome: Boehner and the GOP’s last chance on immigration reform

Tick, tock, the clock has run out on John Boehner and his GOP cohort to present a credible immigration reform plan to the nation. And that doesn't mean just any set of “principles,” but a coherent, comprehensive bill that will pass the House, reconcile with the Senate’s bill and win the president’s signature.

The face of the clock is clearly saying failure is not an option for the Republican Party.

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While conservative pooh-bahs are discouraging Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) from action, saying that immigration reform will damage the GOP, the view from outside the right-wing bubble is quite different. Boehner undoubtedly gets it, but many Republicans on the Hill and their enablers in the media, especially Tea Partyers who are rabidly opposed to reform, continue to live trapped in a time capsule somewhere in the past when Cokes sold for a nickel, new Chevys for $800 bucks and minorities could not vote.

Invisible to these time travelers is the daily damage that Republicans are suffering as American Latino voters — the fastest growing part of the electorate and the margin of victory or defeat in several big states — are increasingly disgusted with the GOP’s immigration blockade.

The reality is now upon us: Since President Bush’s immigration reform was killed by his own Republican Party in 2007 and the latest GOP presidential candidate ran on a political suicide strategy of “self-deportation,” Hispanics in this country see Republicans as the immovable object that must be dislodged from power.

The national GOP is going through a scaled-up version of the Pete Wilson syndrome. Back in the 1990s, Republican rising star Gov. Pete Wilson of California launched a crusade attacking undocumented workers. He campaigned for a ballot proposition that would, among many other vindictive measures, keep undocumented kids from attending public schools.

The proposition passed with the substantial help of Latino voter apathy. But aside from being found unconstitutional, Wilson’s attack upon Latinos had a very serious unintended consequence: Inert Hispanic citizens woke up and became registered voters. Since Wilson’s doomed crusade, the percentage of Latino voters has increased in every election

All any California Democrat has to do at a voter rally is connect their GOP opponent with the magic words “Pete Wilson” and the election is effectively over. The state of Ronald Reagan is now deep blue; there are no state-wide elected Republicans. Latinos have long memories.

And invisible to the immigration blockaders is the effect a legalization bill without a path to citizenship will have on Latino voters. The very un-American idea that the U.S. will have a permanent underclass of laborers paying taxes and contributing to the common good, yet unable to aspire to citizenship, is repulsive. As Germany and other countries that have tried similar schemes, the effects include diminished economic benefits from immigration, racism, and social instability. 

If Republicans want to permanently lose the Latino vote, as they’ve lost the African-American electorate, then they should definitely pass a bill blocking an earned path toward citizenship.

The only question that remains is whether Boehner will allow his party to commit electoral hara-kiri or save it by passing comprehensive immigration reform that makes America more prosperous, secure and true to American values.  He might even successfully inoculate the GOP from Pete Wilson syndrome.

Espuelas, a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a political analyst on television, radio and in print. He is the host and managing editor of “The Fernando Espuelas Show,” a daily political talk show syndicated nationally by the Univision America Network. Contact him at contact@espuelas.com.