Border War

Can This Republican Bring the GOP Back to Its Senses on Immigration?

A prominent Republican senator tells 2016 contenders to skip the Iowa caucuses and its occasionally anti-immigrant crowd if they want to have a shot at winning the White House.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Flake, the vocal proponent of immigration reform from Arizona, has a New Year’s wish: serious action in the issue from the House of Representatives, and soon.

The 2014 midterm elections are just months behind us, but already Flake feels the pressure of the 2016 presidential elections. In an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this month, the Republican senator—one of the few Republicans in Congress still aggressively push hard for immigration reform—urged quick legislative progress on a series of measures on the matter before politicians get too caught up in the next election cycle.

“The closer we get to ‘16, the tougher it’s going to be, so I hope we start quickly,” he said. “When you get closer to any big election, people are more risk-averse. A lot of people see this as a risk, both ways.”

In particular, the Iowa caucuses looms large. For many Republicans presidential hopefuls, the road to the nomination passes through the Hawkeye State. That’s home to Republican Rep. Steve King, long considered a roadblock to progress on immigration reform legislation.

Iowa’s place on the presidential primary calendar is “one of the very unfortunate parts of the presidential primary structure for Republicans,” Flake said. “Often we spend so much time trying to win Iowa we can’t win the rest of the states.”

The perception that Iowa Republicans won’t support a proponent of immigration reform encourages some candidates to take more anti-immigration stances than they otherwise might. Flake joked that perhaps Arizona’s primary should replace Iowa’s on the Republican primary calendar. But failing that, he advised pro-immigration reform Republican candidates such as former Gov. Jeb Bush to just skip the state.

“Some people skip Iowa. That’s not unheard of. McCain basically did… It’s tough to take positions in Iowa that don’t play as well in New Hampshire. So some candidates may just say, ‘hey, we’ll skip it and move on,’” Flake said. “And frankly a lot of Republicans appreciate those who come there and say, I’m sorry, I just don’t agree with Steve King… or other voices on this issue.”

It wasn’t all that long ago—earlier this year, in fact—that the House of Representatives was tantalizingly close to organizing a series of votes on immigration reform. Then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was felled in a primary challenge in June—a loss that many blamed on Cantor’s openness to immigration bills.

“It was an errant reading of the election results in Cantor’s case, but whatever the case it scared enough Republicans away from it that we never got to it,” Flake said.

Flake’s continuing insistence on immigration reform, he said, stems from the disproportionate burden his border state constituents bears for the federal government’s shortcomings on immigration policy.

“We really have paid the price for a long time,” he said, listing the types of disproportionate costs Arizona is forced to pay: in education, criminal justice, health care costs, as well as in violence along the border itself.

The Arizona Republican’s preferred approach was for the House of Representatives to start passing piecemeal legislation that addresses different components of the issue, and for the Senate to start sending these smaller bills to the president for signature or veto.

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Following the midterms, President Obama unveiled a major immigration policy change through executive action, giving temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. But this has made immigration reform more difficult, Flake argued: by moving ahead on this one piece of immigration policy, and failing to adequately address border security, interior enforcement and guest worker visas, the president had essentially endorsed the piecemeal immigration reform approach he once opposed.

“The president’s executive action has changed the form of [future immigration legislation] completely. Those of us who pressed for comprehensive, broad-based reform realize now that the president has taken it piecemeal,” the Arizona senator said.

Still, Flake continued, he had no interest in aggressively opposing the president’s action, preferring instead to respond by sending permanent legislation to the Oval Office. Other Repbulicans’ grandstanding, by suing the president, was just “background noise… Rather than try to stick a finger in his eye, let’s put legislation on his desk.” On Tuesday night, the D.C. District Court affirmed this view, dismissing a lawsuit filed by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio against the White House’s immigration moves.

“The court’s decision “confirms what the Department of Justice and scholars throughout the country have been saying all along: the President’s executive actions on immigration are lawful,” White House spokesman Eric Shultz said Tuesday night.

Flake predicted that while some Iowa Republican caucus attendees would cheer the death of immigration reform, the Republican Party needs to take a broader and longer view in the new year.

“If we don’t address immigration reform, we’ll find it very difficult, as Republicans, to win national office” in 2016, the Republican senator predicted. “We’re a major political party. We’re expected to have a rational approach on these big issues. And on immigration the party as a whole I don’t think has had a very rational approach. But we can’t avoid that now. We’re in charge of the House and the Senate.”