Immigration gamble

Republicans desperately need an out on the immigration debate.

Mitt Romney won the white vote in 2012 by a crushing 20 points. Yet in today’s dynamic demographic environment, that wasn’t enough to prevent President Obama’s comfortable 4-point reelection. And therein lies the GOP’s dilemma — it couldn’t afford to lose Latinos (and Asians) by 44 points in 2012, and it will be even less able to afford it in future elections. Indeed, the median age of native-born Latinos is just 18 years old, foreshadowing the massive future potential of a demographic on the rise.

How can Republicans campaign for a growing cohort that disagrees not only with the right’s rhetoric on immigration but also on social and economic issues? After all, Latinos are more likely to approve of “socialism” than Occupy protesters, and they also support marriage equality and reproductive rights in greater numbers than the population at large.

Hence the move by some Republicans to appear conciliatory on immigration. The status quo is untenable if they ever hope to win a national election again. And while conservatives won’t shift on economic or social issues, they can at least try to remove the stain of nativism from their brand. But how to accomplish that without creating 13 million new Latino voters, about 80 percent of whom will cast their ballot for Democrats?

On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators announced an immigration reform proposal that would appear to create a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants. The children of undocumented immigrants and agricultural workers would receive priority, while the rest would have to begin a lengthy legalization process. While the waiting immigrants would no longer be subject to deportation, they’d be stuck in a sort of legal limbo, unable to exercise their rights as citizens. In short, they could legally work for big corporations, but couldn’t legally vote for representatives to regulate those corporations.

And here’s the rub of the proposal — the Senate framework discusses a commission of border officials, including governors, who would determine whether the border is secure enough to open a path to citizenship. According to Democrats, that commission is only advisory. Republicans seem to think that it could block full citizenship rights. And since this is a “framework” proposal, devoid of actual legislative language, no one is sure which is true.

It’s hard to see how the Democratic interpretation would fly in the GOP-controlled House. No matter how long you delay full legalization, Republicans will be terrified of creating millions of new Democratic voters. The Republican interpretation might assuage some of those concerns, using the regional commission to block full citizenship in perpetuity. At the same time, Republicans could pretend to be humane and pro-reform, thus softening their image with Latinos.

But even that is fraught with peril for the GOP -— and opportunity for Democrats. The Republican attempts to create a “separate but equal” class of immigrants could backfire. Liberals have long struggled to activate Latino voters in Texas and Arizona — in 2008, Obama lost Texas by 951,000 votes, while 1.2 million Latinos eligible to vote sat out the election. But if the fate of their friends and family members was predicated on gubernatorial elections, that would be all the extra motivation Latinos could need to fully activate.

For Republicans worried about winning in Latino-heavy areas, this would be the worst of all worlds — a growing, hostile and engaged Latino electorate.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos