Just five days ago, if you asked Republicans whether comprehensive immigration reform was worth taking on, they most likely would have responded with a resounding no. But then Nov. 6 happened, and GOP strategists saw just how decisive the Latino vote was in propelling President Obama to a second term.
And so now the hand-wringing, second-guessing, and soul-searching begins. Already, several high-profile conservatives from John Boehner to Haley Barbour to Sean Hannity have “evolved” their positions and voiced support for a pathway to citizenship—or at least some sort of legal status. Sen. John McCain, who disavowed his earlier work on the topic to stave off a 2010 primary challenge, tweeted that he agrees with calls for comprehensive reform.
It’s easy to see why the Republicans have reversed course after years of pushing a birthright amendment to the Constitution and laws that give local police the authority to inquire about a person’s immigration status. Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing groups in the country, accounting for more than half the population growth since the 2000 census.
Nationally, Obama won the Latino vote by a 3–1 margin, but more important, Hispanics came out to support the president in key battleground states like Ohio, where 82 percent backed him over Mitt Romney. In Virginia, Obama held a 35-point edge. In Colorado, he decimated his Republican challenger 87 percent to 10 percent. Hispanics also helped the Democrats increase their seats in the Senate, propelling candidates in Florida, New Mexico, and even Massachusetts to victory.
“Conservatives must now reflect on the fact that Obama received 4 percent more of the Hispanic vote than he did in the 2008 election, while in 2012 Romney received 4 percent less than when McCain ran,” said Jennifer S. Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-leaning group based in Washington, D.C. “But conservatives also have to view this election as an opportunity. On the immigration front, it’s critical that Republicans are viewed as committed to fixing our broken immigration system.”
In a certain sense, factions of the party began recognizing its need to appeal to Latino voters well before it chose a nominee earlier this year. Repeated calls for people like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio—all of whom have called for more moderate, humane approaches to immigration reform and have personal ties to the Latino community—to run for president or join the eventual Republican ticket reached a fever pitch as the primary season wore on. They intensified even more as it became clear that the candidates were tripping over each other to denounce the DREAM Act and advocate for “self-deportation”—a concept that relies on making life so difficult for those who are undocumented that they voluntarily decide to return home. It’s not a coincidence that the names of Bush, Rubio, and Martinez are already being floated as possible 2016 contenders.
But while conservative leaders are showing signs they want to recalibrate their approach to vast swaths of the electorate, it’s not clear the rank and file will want to make the transition. Strict immigration policies are still popular with much of the base. And so long as House members remain safely ensconced in gerrymandered districts, their biggest concern is a primary challenge from the right.
And it’s not just a problem in the House. For negotiating with Democrats on immigration reform in 2010, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham will likely be rewarded with a Tea Party primary challenge when he’s up for reelection in 2014. Graham eventually walked away from those negotiations, but announced Sunday that he would work to create a bipartisan bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Getting lawmakers who have voted on dozens of occasions against comprehensive reform, the DREAM Act, and other pro-immigration measures will be a difficult task that opens them up to charges of flip-flopping. Rep. Steve King, an outspoken Republican House member from Iowa who compared immigrants to livestock and recommended electrifying the border fence, wasted no time in defying Boehner, tweeting “Now establishment R’s want citizenship for illegals. You can’t beat Santa Claus with amnesty.”
There have always been two impulses within the GOP when it comes to immigration reform. Recognizing Latinos were a fast-growing voting bloc, Ronald Reagan signed legislation that legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants. George W. Bush—who so effectively engaged the Hispanic community that he won more than 40 percent of their votes in 2004—again tried for comprehensive reform in 2007, but was shot down by conservative members of Congress. Since then, the anti-immigration forces led by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and even Mitt Romney, with his idea of self-deportation, have been in ascendancy within the Republican Party.
While King and these others don’t speak for the entire GOP, the party does have a record of promoting members with extreme views into positions of power on key committees that oversee immigration issues. Since taking the House in 2010, Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas has run the Judiciary Committee. Smith has called the DREAM Act an “American nightmare” and was responsible for legislation that made it easier for the federal government to deport undocumented immigrants in the mid-1990s. The man vying for his position in the next Congress, Virginia’s Bob Goodlatte, wrote an amicus brief in support of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Rep. Elton Gallegly, the outgoing chair of the immigration subcommittee, championed legislation that would allow states to cut off public education for the children of undocumented people and federal funding for hospitals that refused to report immigration status.
Even with the realization that Latinos are an important voting group, it remains to be seen whether House Republicans can actually find enough votes to go forward with comprehensive reform. As The Hill notes, only eight voted for the DREAM Act in the waning days of 2010, and of those only two remain in Congress: Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both from Florida. Changing the party’s stance on immigration reform at the national stage is going to be an uphill battle.
In the interim, Republicans may have more success at the state and local levels. The strategy? Electing Hispanic candidates who will in turn broaden the party’s perspective on issues important to Latinos. Before the election, there were 47 Hispanic Republicans holding office in state governments across the country. But now, since Tuesday, at least 14 more are on their way to join them.
“That’s going to change just naturally the tone of the debate,” said one Republican operative. “Rather than arguing from a strategic point of view, it’s much more forceful to have Hispanics advocating for good policy from within the party.”