GOP backs immigration bill

Anew blockbuster survey by the noted Republican survey research firm McLaughlin and Associates reveals a stunning reversal of opinion by Republican voters on the issue of immigration reform. Where once there was hardened opposition to such legislation, a national sample of 500 self-described likely Republican voters shows broad support now emerging for the measure.

Asked about an immigration reform proposal that would “grant illegal immigrants legal status and a green card and then, after a wait of several years, they could apply for citizenship if they pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English and have no criminal record,” Republicans were supportive 66 percent to 30 percent. The proposal got 30 percent strong support, while 36 percent somewhat supported it, 10 percent somewhat opposed it and 20 percent strongly opposed the measure.

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Republican support for immigration reform swelled to 75 percent when pollsters homed in on the specifics of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla).

Respondents were asked: “Republican Senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill that provides illegal immigrants, who are now in the United States, a way to begin the process of becoming legal by identifying themselves to federal authorities and being fingerprinted. If they have no criminal record and have been in the US for a while, they would then pay a fine and taxes and would be eligible to apply for legal residency. However, to become citizens, they would need to go to the back of the line behind those now in line seeking legal entry from their countries.”

This time, 39 percent strongly supported the proposal and 36 percent somewhat supported it, with 6 percent somewhat opposed to it and 11 percent strongly opposed.

The McLaughlin Survey was conducted Feb. 26-28 and has a margin of error of 4 points. It was organized and funded by California winery owner and major GOP donor John Jordan.

Pragmatic considerations probably played a large role in the sudden shift in Republican opinion. The well-publicized massive Hispanic vote for Obama seems to have chastened the more rabid of the anti-immigration stalwarts of the party. Anyone looking at the numbers has to conclude that, without a change in the Hispanic bias toward Democrats, the entire Republican Party could become a thing of the past.

The key to Republican acceptance of the proposals for immigration reform is the separation of legal status from a path to citizenship. GOP voters are broadly accepting of proposals to allow those already in the country to stay, if only because of the obvious infeasibility of rounding up and deporting 11 million people. But when it comes to citizenship, Republicans are determined not to reward those who have entered illegally by letting them secure special advantages from their unlawful entry. The genius of the Rubio plan is that the formerly illegal immigrants have to go to the back of the line, figuratively, and wait until those currently waiting for legal entry into the United States have had their turn.

Republicans are realizing that the question is not how the 11 million now here illegally will eventually vote — it is how Republican opposition to legalizing them will affect the 45 million Hispanics already on the voter rolls.

Remember how the black vote came to be solidly Democratic after voting Republican for almost 100 years after Lincoln’s death? After Dwight Eisenhower carried the African-American vote, it split evenly in 1960 after JFK called Coretta Scott King during Martin Luther King Jr.’s imprisonment.

But the tipping point came in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. The bill only passed when Republican Senate leader

Everett Dirksen (Ill.) supported it and induced all but six Republicans to vote for it. But one of the six was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). When Goldwater won the Republican nomination, his party was seen as opposing the legislation. Blacks broke 90-10 for Johnson in that race and in every one since then.

The Republican Party must not only back immigration reform, it must be seen to be backing it to survive.

Morris, a former adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Clinton, is the author of 16 books, including his latest, Screwed and Here Come the Black Helicopters. To get all of his and Eileen McGann’s columns for free by email, go to dickmorris.com.