Major politicians both nationally and in California are talking as if changes in America’s immigration system are now inevitable, including a guest worker program and “amnesty,” the code name for allowing some kind of pathway for illegal immigrants eventually to become U.S. citizens.
Don’t bet the house on it. Especially don’t bet on the House going along.
Yes, the tide of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment has waned considerably in the past year, as reported here. Yes, many Republican politicians are coming to realize their party might be doomed to perpetual minority status if it doesn’t appease Latino voters, who have taken out their anger at the GOP’s tough immigration stance by voting overwhelmingly for Democrats. Latinos are the nation’s fastest-growing voter bloc; they are also on pace to achieve population parity with Anglos in California by 2030.
And yes, immigration amnesty, even with the very tough requirements in plans proposed by both President Obama and a bipartisan group of eight influential U.S. senators, is the most humane way to go.
But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada might have been prematurely optimistic when he said the other day that “Republicans can no longer stop this. They’ve tried it; it hasn’t worked.”
Reid has not always been a good reader of tea leaves. He might be wrong again.
To pass, any amnesty plan would need a significant number of votes from Republican members of Congress – and while some GOP politicians have broken lately from their party’s previously-solid anti-illegal immigrant stance, it’s yet to be determined how many might do it.
One reason they might be reluctant: As with the Democrats, the majority of Republicans in the House hail from districts where their party is dominant. Most GOP representatives win reelection by consistent margins of 55-45 percent or more. The only time politicians in these solidly “red” districts usually lose is in primaries, where they can be attacked by more conservative candidates.
Despite an overall national sense that amnesty is appropriate for illegal immigrants who have worked here for many years, paid their back taxes, paid a fine and not committed any crimes (evidenced in several major polls over the last three months and the essence of both President Obama’s plan and that of the Senate group), that feeling still does not prevail in the more conservative precincts whence most Republicans in Congress hail.
Listen to Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for the anti-illegal immigrant group NumbersUSA: “If the Senate were serious about reforming our failed immigration system, the first step of their plan would be immediate, mandatory use of E-Verify (the federal system under which employers can check the immigration status of new hires). Instead, the Senate gang’s proposal – Amnesty 2.0 – tries to out-amnesty Obama with meaningless enforcement measures, mass amnesty and increases in legal immigration, with taxpayers left to foot the bill.”
Of the current proposals, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, a longtime leading amnesty opponent, said: “If you legalize 11 million people, it is going to cost taxpayers when they become eligible for government benefits, it’s going to cost Americans their jobs when they have to compete with millions more people for scarce jobs. I don’t see much good here for Americans.”
The great likelihood is that neither will the majority of voters in the most preponderantly Republican districts around the nation and that GOP congress members will hear about it in town halls they regularly hold. That happened in late February to Arizona Sen. John McCain, a recent Republican convert to the amnesty concept.
What’s more, despite their seeming enthusiasm for immigration changes including a path to citizenship, many Democrats probably would not mind all that much if their Republican colleagues remained adamant against it.
That’s because the longer the GOP holds out against the kind of changes outlined in both Obama’s plan and the Senate proposal, the more the Latino vote will solidify in the Democratic column. So there will be outward frowns from Democrats if immigration amnesty passes the Senate but gets stuck in the House, but inwardly many will be glad to have another albatross to hang around Republican necks.
For Democrats everywhere well know how far the GOP has fallen in California and how tarnished the Republican brand has become among Latinos here since then-Gov. Pete Wilson campaigned in 1994 as a staunch foe of illegal immigrants.
All of which makes this a key moment for Republicans. Voting for change would give them a shot at winning back at least some Latino votes, while voting no would allow many of them to please their local constituents but set back their party’s national chances potentially for decades to come.
Contact Tom Elias: firstname.lastname@example.org.