The GOP's immigration imbroglio

The smackdown has begun — while the comprehensive-immigration reformers swoon over bipartisan momentum, a critical mass of establishment conservatives have rendered their verdict: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his co-sponsors and the conservative talk-show hosts he has persuaded to keep an open mind on his immigration plan are suckers.

There is a strong possibility that, given President Obama’s hunger for a legacy he won’t likely find with gun control or a fiscal fix, and the GOP’s thirst for a remedy for its electoral woes, some form of immigration reform can pass the Congress and be signed into law just months from now. But the political crosswinds that have produced the first bipartisan unity on a controversial issue in many years are also cutting against a compromise — largely because of divisions between the Rubio Republicans and those who do not subscribe to the very new view that immigration reform is critical to the party’s survival.

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And the adjustment has been, shall we say, abrupt. It was just a year ago that Mitt Romney was suggesting illegal immigrants self-deport while softie Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) were offering “magnets” for amnesty with their talk of keeping Grandma here and offering assistance with a college education. At the time, Rubio was working on a version of a DREAM Act Jr. plan to create a bridge from the GOP border-security crowd to the Latino electorate. But Republicans didn’t want the fight; only the centrist saps would listen. Romney never walked back his position, and he not only lost the election, he lost Latino support to Obama by a stunning margin of 71-27 percent. Within hours, many Republicans decided they had to reverse course on immigration reform or face a demographic death wish with the fastest-growing population in America.

Back on the bandwagon, after a two-year hiatus in which he bashed immigration reform in order to get reelected to the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has joined Rubio and the bipartisan Senate group pushing a comprehensive package that includes legalization for illegal immigrants. McCain and other Republicans argue that in the absence of a Republican effort on the issue, Texas, Arizona and other red states with burgeoning Latino populations will turn blue and vote Democrat.

Legalization, a chance to “come out of the shadows” for “undocumented workers” — to many conservatives it’s just amnesty. Despite Rubio’s aggressive efforts to persuade conservatives that doing nothing leaves us with a system of de facto amnesty, that he wants border security first and then green cards that follow fines and taxes, and that a path to citizenship would be difficult, the right is letting Rubio know they can’t be snowed. Through both the 1986 law conservative hero Ronald Reagan signed as president, as well as the failed 2006 and 2007 efforts of former President George W. Bush, McCain and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have been held up as examples of why legalization is amnesty and why it isn’t popular enough to pass now.

“Look, I love and respect Marco,” GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. “I just think he’s amazingly naive on this issue.” Erick Erickson of RedState said, though it took him a while to be able to state in publicly that he doesn’t like Rubio’s plan, it’s “warmed over McCain-Kennedy and will do nothing to solve the problem.”

In a searing editorial titled “A Pointless Amnesty,” the editors at the National Review said hoping reform would bring Latino voters to the GOP is a fantasy. While McCain has made it painfully clear he is doing this to win the hearts and minds of Hispanic “citizens,” and not illegal immigrants, the editorial pointedly noted McCain “has not said why he believes that the interests of Hispanic citizens are to be identified with those of non-citizens … or why a senator with an established record of supporting amnesty could not muster one in three votes from those Hispanic citizens.” Ouch.

The GOP, argued the editors, won’t unearth a new groundswell of Republican support after supporting reform. “Low income households headed by single mothers and dependent on some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey,” they wrote.

Of course, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are both in Rubio’s camp on immigration — the time is now, and there’s no choice. “I personally believe we should have done this a long time ago, I really do believe it’s doable this year,” Ryan told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

With the white vote diminishing each year, and Romney having lost women, gay Americans, African-Americans and Asians as well as Latinos, it’s hard to argue with Rubio and McCain, Ryan and Boehner. Even the National Review editors conceded “Given the growing size of the Hispanic vote, it would help Republicans significantly to lose it my smaller margins than they have recently.” But those who disagree with McCain’s prescription for GOP survival, or think Rubio “amazingly naive” are likely to make as many phone calls to try to close the newly opened minds of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, as Rubio has made to open them. They will fight, sure as they shut down the Senate switchboard in 2007, to the end. And unfortunately for the Republican Party, they might win.
 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.