Immigration Politics At Center Stage

This week, immigration politics again moved to the forefront of the national conversation. The week began with director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu calling for immigrants to be treated with dignity and respect in his speech at Sunday night’s Oscars broadcast. Midweek, President Obama declared his intent to appeal federal judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling that enjoined the president’s November executive action to prevent the deportation of nearly five million undocumented immigrants. Yesterday began two days of speeches delivered by 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls—most of whom oppose comprehensive immigration reform, even if some did not address the issue—at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee convention in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. Finally, the week will end with what presumably will be some resolution to the political deadlock caused by the congressional Republicans’ decision to block funding to the Department of Homeland Security in protest of President Obama’s November 2014 executive action on immigration.

Republicans in Congress and CPAC conservatives are upset with what they deem Obama’s unconstitutional action to stop the deportations. Many have couched their opposition in the context of separation of powers between the branches, rather than purely anti-immigrant sentiment. Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins took to the Senate floor on Thursday to explain their opposition as a matter of institutional overreach, not opposition to comprehensive immigration reform as a matter of policy per se. Nevermind, of course, that immigration law expert Mark Noferi has repeatedly explained the historical precedent for the use of executive authority by presidents —including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush— to determine immigration policy. Clearly, some Republican opponents are dressing up their anti-immigrant policy positions in constitutional clothes.

The willingness of congressional Republicans to play political chicken with DHS funding is a particularly bold gamble, but hardly a new tactic. When they placed an “unclean” rider on the DHS funding bill to reverse the president’s executive action, the GOP added immigration to its pattern of hostage-taking politics designed to either get what they want, or at the very least signal their authenticity to the party’s conservative base in the post-tea party era.

Following two debt ceiling crises and the fall 2013 government shutdown, congressional Republicans—and especially the rabid anti-immigrant cohort within politically-beleaguered Speaker John Boehner’s House majority caucus—have demonstrated two tendencies. The first, of course, is their willingness to bring national politics to a halt through dramatic procedural maneuvers. Given the resolution of those debt ceiling and budget shutdown episodes, the second is that, after making a grand, initial public show of their steadfast resistance, Boehner and his House GOP caucus eventually fold.

Given this pattern, there’s not much for Republicans—and especially the large field of GOP presidential hopefuls—to be gained in the long-term from risky short-term politics. And the party risks losing much more. Latinos continue to support the Democrats by solid majorities, to be sure; but that support is soft and conditional. And as Latino Decisions polling has repeatedly shown, the primary condition is support for comprehensive immigration reform. Before Obama took action in November, the Latino Decisions 2014 Election Eve poll clearly showed that if he did take executive action, Latino voters would feel more enthusiastic toward the Democratic party. Similarly, the poll found that if Republicans opposed the president, these voters would feel far less enthusiastic toward the GOP. Bottom line: If Republicans remove immigration as a point of policy differentiation between the parties, the entire party stands to be much more competitive with Latino voters.

Following the 2012 presidential election, national Republicans faced a choice: Articulate and execute a path toward a fuller partisan recovery that can broaden the party’s appeal, or continue to retrench by trying to squeeze maximum political power from the party’s shrinking older, married, white male voting base. As Latino Decisions’ Matt Barreto argued last November in the Huffington Post, and I discuss at some length in my new book The Stronghold, in its post-2012 election “Governing Opportunity Project” self-diagnosis, the party called for an expansive recovery that includes appeals to new voting blocks, particularly Latinos.

Since issuing that report in March 2013, however, the party’s public avowals have to often been at odds with its politics and rhetoric. As I argue in my book, part of the problem is purely institutional: The electoral calculus for Republicans elected from safe, highly-gerrymandered House districts, and solidly red and often predominantly white states, is fundamentally different from the calculus of the party’s eventual 2016 presidential nominee, who will need to recapture states like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada to win the White House. It’s perfectly rational for Iowa Rep. Steve King and other House Republicans to issue incendiary statements about immigration, because their electoral fortunes rise when they do; after all, 95 percent of GOP-held U.S. House districts are majority-white, and a whopping two-thirds of them are more than 70 percent white.

But when Ben Carson, Rick Santorum or Scott Walker rush to Des Moines, as they did last month to curry favor with King and his followers, their presidential fortunes suffer, whether they realize it or not. As The Hill’s Kevin Cirilli reported last week, top GOP donors are warning presidential hopefuls to join former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in taking a more moderate stand on immigration. “The donors didn’t go into a specific critique or endorsement of Bush’s immigration policies, but their message was clear: the 2016 presidential candidates must strike a more moderate tone on the issue and avoid controversial ‘fringe’ remarks to appease to the far right during a primary if they want to win the White House,” Cirilli wrote.

Later today, Bush will take the stage at CPAC to deliver his address. He may not mention immigration at all. Thus far he’s said he generally supports comprehensive immigration reform, although he has joined the chorus complaining on constitutional grounds about President Obama’s November 2014 executive action. That may be Bush deftly carving out a bit of wiggle room on his right flank. And Bush’s constitutional claims can at least be taken at face value, given his positions and statements on immigration.

That said, Bush’s speech this afternoon could prove to be the most compelling moment of this year’s CPAC. And with the clock ticking on the DHS budget time bomb, the actions of John Boehner and his fellow House Republicans are setting up the next 24 hours to perhaps be remembered as a pivotal moment for the GOP and their potential Latino support in 2016.

Thomas Schaller is political director at Latino Decisions, a political columnist for the Baltimore Sun, and professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of Whistling Past Dixie (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and his most recent book is The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House (Yale University Press, 2015).