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Last updated: January 31, 2014 7:35 pm
The Republican party has begun a divisive internal debate on immigration and wooing minority voters that leaders believe has the potential to make-or-break their chances of regaining the White House.
In a set of principles released this week, John Boehner, Speaker of the Republican-controlled House, said the party supported reforms to give undocumented migrants legal status, something he had resisted.
The turnround follows a scathing internal report after the 2012 presidential election that concluded immigration policy had become “a litmus test” of the party’s attitude to the US’s fast-growing population of 53m Hispanics.
Mitt Romney, who suggested undocumented immigrants could “self-deport”, won only 27 per cent of the Hispanic vote. George W Bush, who embraced Hispanics, won as much as 44 per cent.
The Republican leadership’s decision to embrace some kind of legal status could pave the way for a deal with Mr Obama and the Democrats on an issue that has been immune to bipartisan compromise for years.
“That’s a big deal from the party of self-deportation,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a lobby group that supports reform. He estimates that about 80 per cent of undocumented immigrants are of Hispanic descent.
The Republicans stopped short of offering a path to citizenship for people who had entered or stayed in the US illegally, unlike a Senate bill backed by Mr Obama and passed last year.
Immigration is one of the few areas where bipartisan co-operation in Washington is feasible this year. President Barack Obama hinted in an interview with CNN that he could accept a deal that did not include a special path to citizenship.
But while proponents of reform say it could be the Republican party’s political salvation, repairing its relationship with a group that makes up 17 per cent of the US population, opponents say it amounts to electoral suicide.
Touchstone issues for law-and-order conservatives are border security and whether undocumented immigrants are being given “amnesty”. Others focus on whether immigrants will take jobs from Americans or live off state welfare. But beneath much of the public posturing is political calculation.
John McCain, the Republican senator and 2008 presidential candidate, has said the GOP could not win another national election if it did not pass immigration reform. On Friday he said Mr Boehner’s move was “a positive step in the right direction”.
Mr Sharry said: “What [Mr Boehner] realised is Republicans are not nearly as opposed to immigration as the conventional wisdom holds. The ‘hell no’ caucus is loud but not large.”
The importance that many Hispanics attach to the Christian faith and family should give them and the Republican party a natural affinity, party strategists say.
One congressional aide said the reform debate would not be a simple matter of Tea Party opponents versus supporters in the Republican establishment. “I don’t think so, because the demographics of every district are different.”
Some lawmakers who see immigration reform as political suicide say giving undocumented immigrants even a slow, non-preferential path to citizenship would create 11m new Democratic voters.
Others say that reopening Republican divisions on immigration would harm the party’s chances in November midterm elections.
Many Republicans say their best hope of tightening their grip on the House – and winning control of the Senate – is to focus the campaign on Mr Obama’s troubled new healthcare law.
“In that context, why on earth would the House dive into immigration right now?” said Ted Cruz, a Tea Party senator. Republicans, he said, were poised to win with a “conservative tidal wave”.
“The biggest thing we could do to mess that up would be if the House passed an amnesty bill – or any bill perceived as an amnesty bill – that demoralised voters going into November.”
On Friday a pro-reform lobby group part-funded by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, launched a $750,000 ad campaign to defend Mr Boehner’s move.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former official under George W Bush and president of the American Action Forum, says party divisions are manageable as long as Mr Boehner ensures all party members feel they are getting a say.
But he says no one should believe that immigration reform will automatically bring Hispanics flocking to the party. They are not single-issue voters and – like everyone else – care about education, healthcare and jobs too. “Anyone who views this as a panacea is making a mistake.”
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