GOP on Immigration: Short-Term Gain, but Long-Term Pain

In the short run, the border crisis feeds into the Republican narrative on the need for more security. The long run is a different story.

As Congress heads home for August, spending time in town halls and meet-and-greets with those they represent, you can bet they’re going to encounter frustration about the government’s response to the growing border crisis.

The challenge for Republicans is that the actions they take today may have very different political consequences depending on the timeframe you’re talking about. In the short run, multiple polls show the party holding a slight advantage (PDF) over Democrats on the issue of immigration, and the long-term impact of “enforcement first,” may have the opposite effect on GOP fortunes at the ballot box down the road.

Last Friday, with the Senate already having left town for summer vacation, the House of Representatives convened a final day of voting on legislation to address the crisis along the southern border, where tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central American countries have arrived seeking asylum.

With little hope of garnering any votes from the Democratic side of the aisle, Speaker John Boehner had to advance a bill that could cross the finish line with 218 out of 234 Republican votes, and in the end he put forward two separate pieces of legislation: one allocating nearly $700 million to address the crisis (a seemingly hefty sum, but short of the $3.7 billion requested by the president), and the other blocking the renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The political challenge for Republicans on the issue of immigration is well-covered territory. As the Hispanic share of America’s voting population grows and grows with each election cycle, the risks of being a party viewed as anti-immigrant or anti-Latino are enormous. Furthermore, since the reelection of George W. Bush (who, of course, was an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform), the Republican share of the Hispanic vote has decreased significantly.

Too often, discussion of the GOP’s political bind on immigration doesn’t present the problem as much of a bind at all. Step one, support comprehensive immigration reform, step two, win all the elections. In this, the smart Republican response is self-evident: Get behind a comprehensive reform bill posthaste.

What this neglects is the very real, and very justified, frustration of voters about the current state of border security, and the way in which the crisis lends credence to Republicans’ repeated calls to secure the border first before considering pathways to legal status. It takes the Republican message that Obama cannot be trusted to enforce the laws and secure the border and moves it from partisan fantasyland to something voters can align with the images they see on the nightly news. It makes an “enforcement first” posture seem like a no-brainer and as a result makes legislation to deal with the status of the undocumented far less likely to be passed any time soon.

Put simply, the politics of the border crisis favor Republicans in the short term, while posing serious risks over the longer time horizon.

The border crisis has coincided with a shift in voter priorities on immigration, as stopping the inflow of undocumented immigrants becomes a slightly higher priority (PDF) than dealing with those who are already here. And despite the angst about the rocky path House Republicans took to get a border bill passed, in key Senate race states, Hispanic voters are less likely to make up a large proportion of the electorate, minimizing the short-term demographically driven political risks of opposing the president’s immigration plans. What House Republicans can say (and Senate Democrats cannot) is that they passed something to deal with the crisis, and that their position is more in line with where voters stand on the issue.

And voters do know there’s a crisis; since March, the number of voters saying immigration is an “extremely important” issue has gone from less than one out of four to more than a third of the electorate, according to polling done by the AP (PDF). In that time, Obama’s job approval on the issue has fallen, and Republicans have gained a slight edge over Democrats on which side voters trust more to handle the issue of immigration.

In terms of the border crisis, voters are split on whether to consider the border crisis a “refugee crisis” at all, with 52 percent in the AP poll saying the children fleeing gun violence should not be treated as refugees, while other surveys show large majorities who think the children should be treated as refugees and given shelter. Still other polls also show a majority of voters—and even 46 percent of Democrats—have an appetite to speed up the deportation process for many of these children, even if it means some who are eligible for refugee status are sent home.

Despite this, a majority in the polls also say they favor creating a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally, and give more blame to Republicans than to Democrats or Obama for the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. Even a majority of Republicans support creating a pathway to legal status of some kind for those here illegally, along with more than seven out of 10 independents and Democrats.

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In sum: On the question of handling the crisis today, voters seem to be more in line with Republicans. On the question of reform, voters lean more toward the position that we need a path to legal status or citizenship for those who are undocumented, and the nation’s demographic trends suggest that will only continue. In the past, under a Republican president who supported reform, Republicans’ standing among Latino voters was far different than it is today, and while comprehensive reform is not the end-all, be-all for repairing the party’s standing with Hispanic voters, it is a key piece of the puzzle. While the current Republican action on immigration and the border crisis actually meshes with where many voters stand, the challenge for the GOP is to not let short-term gains create long-term pains.