The Wishful Thinking of the GOP's Immigration Reform Skeptics
There will be ample time to fly-speck the details of the immigration deal that eight senators just cut; and no shortage of reasons why it might flounder. What will be the penalty for undocumented immigrants who fail to register but have committed no deportable offenses? If it is short of deportation, how many will take their chance on staying in the shadows over an uncertain path to citizenship? Is the notion of a regional commission to monitor the “enforcement first” elements of the deal a prescription for gridlock? Will Democrats resist the temptation to load up a Senate bill with union organizing provisions? And how many fights will break out over the eligibility of legalized but non-citizen immigrants for government services?
My first reaction, however, is that it is a credible template for what achievable comprehensive reform might look like. I also find it smart politics for Republicans. That puts me at odds with critics who think, as Ross Douthat does, that immigration reform is an inherently flawed trap for the party. Douthat argues that facilitating a path to citizenship could only expand a voting bloc that is still prone to be Democratic-leaning, and which will likely credit Barack Obama more than Marco Rubio for a breakthrough; and that Democrats can still be expected to push for additional and likely unpalatable reforms that Republicans would only be punished by Hispanics for opposing.
It’s a pragmatic sounding argument whose first flaw is its assumption that Hispanics are the sole interested parties in the immigration debate. To the contrary, when Democrats spin Republican hostility to immigration reform as a symptom of resistance to an increasingly multicultural society, their targets include not just Latinos but suburban professionals, college educated women, and 18-29 year olds, three solid elements of Obama’s coalition who were all swing voters a decade ago. As I have argued elsewhere, Republicans underestimate the extent to which Obama’s majority has been built not just around enthusiasm for expanded government but around a cultural vision that associates liberalism with inclusiveness: immigration policy is an overlooked component of that worldview
To be sure, as Douthat notes, the 70 percent of Hispanics who backed Obama are not single issue voters motivated solely by Obama’s first term immigration record (which, after all, was largely rhetorical rather than substantive). But Douthat is surely too quick to dismiss Marco Rubio’s own observation that voters tend to tune out economic messages when they sense that a party is hostile to their interests in a more fundamental way.
Conservative skeptics of movement on immigration should not be dismissed, given the uncertainties of yesterday’s deal. But the idea that another round of opposition won’t deepen the party’s problems with voters it won or split as recently as 2004, much less harden Hispanic antipathy to the GOP, is wishful thinking.