“I believe we can get it done. I’ll see you at the bill signing.”
– President George W. Bush in 2007,
expressing confidence in passage of a
major immigration reform package
Of course, the bill signing envisioned by President Bush never did take place. Opposition from within his own party quickly doomed the measure, and the relationship between Republicans and Hispanic Americans has been all downhill ever since.
In 2004, Bush attracted 44 percent of the Hispanic vote on his way to re-election. In 2008, after the demise of the immigration bill, John McCain pulled just 31 percent. Mitt Romney, whose solution to the problem was self-deportation, got 27 percent in 2012. An ever-declining percentage of a fast-growing demographic group is a long-term formula for failure, as McCain himself reminded his party Monday.
“If we continue to polarize the Latino/Hispanic vote,” the Arizona senator said on CNN, “the demographics indicate that our chances of being in the majority are minimal.”
So this week, McCain joined seven other U.S. senators — an equal mix of Republicans and Democrats — in announcing agreement on a broad, comprehensive immigration-reform package. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, was also among the group. And while that ought to be encouraging, the truth is that conservatives and liberals seem to have very different ideas about the details of the proposal, which at this point exists only as a vague description of principles.
Such broad descriptive language can sidestep or paper over major policy differences, but those differences become glaringly apparent once you start putting it into legislative language of “shall” and “shall not”. In one indication of the work ahead, senators don’t expect to have an actual bill to introduce until the end of March, and even that schedule is probably optimistic.
McCain, Rubio and other prominent Republicans know that their party would be damaged permanently if it is seen to be blocking yet another effort at immigration reform. Yet a different bloc of Republicans, most of them in the House, remains committed to oppose anything that might offer amnesty or a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally.
President Obama’s strained relationship with House Republicans adds another layer of difficulty to the problem. The president is scheduled to announce his own immigration-reform package today in Nevada, which is also the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Not coincidentally, the growing Latino vote has been crucial in turning Nevada from a red state to a blue state in the last two presidential elections.
Obama has promised to make immigration reform a primary goal of his second term in office, and like Reid, he’s under pressure to produce. However, he also recognizes that the pressure on Republicans is even more intense. The longer this problem remains unresolved, leaving some 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants in legal limbo, the more difficult it becomes for the GOP.
In Georgia, for example, non-white Hispanics make up an estimated 9 percent of the population, but they comprised barely 1 percent of the turnout in the 2012 election. Regardless of what happens in Washington, that second number is going to rise and rise quickly in future election cycles, and if Republicans can’t at least be competitive for that vote, things get very difficult.
– Jay Bookman