After last November’s crushing loss in the US presidential elections, a committee of Republican grandees issued a warning to their party. They could either back reform of the immigration system to normalise the status of America’s 11m-plus undocumented migrants, or lose the fastest-growing bloc of voters for a generation.
“It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” said the committee handpicked by the Republican leadership.
So it was a surprise last week to see Washington barely shrug when John Boehner, the most senior Republican on Capitol Hill, pulled the rug from under comprehensive immigration reform.
Mr Boehner did not enunciate his decision so starkly. All the Speaker of the House of Representatives said was that the Republican-controlled chamber would not negotiate over the Senate’s bulky, bipartisan immigration reform bill, passed in June.
But the message was clear. Whatever Mr Boehner thinks about the issue, he knows the conservative Tea Party wing of his party will have no truck with a Senate bill that offers undocumented migrants a pathway to citizenship. Next year, which brings the midterm congressional elections, there is even less chance of big-ticket immigration reform going through.
One reason immigration reform fell by the wayside is obvious enough. Republicans do not want to talk about anything else at the moment other than President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
Still, the moment bears examination. It is at least the fourth time in a decade that fixing what both sides agree is a broken immigration system has floundered in Congress, largely because of the objections of Republicans in the House of Representatives.
George W Bush, who cultivated Hispanics as governor of Texas, failed twice. Journalist Peter Baker in his book on the Bush administration, Days of Fire, recounts how the president was flatly rebuffed when he took his case to Republicans in Congress. Anything that suggested amnesty for illegals was off the table, because, as the Republican majority leader at the time, Tom DeLay, put it, that would mean “doing something good for someone who has broken the law.”
America’s immigration problem has been so long in the making that these “lawbreakers” now have families, children and grandchildren, some born in the US, others raised there. The uncertainty that comes with being in the country illegally stretches across generations.
The Senate bill hardly hands out citizenship on a platter. The tortuous process outlined will take anyone lucky enough to qualify, and to pay a series of fines and back taxes, more than a decade to get through.
But no matter. Few issues stir the Tea Party as violently as illegal immigrants and the notion that an expansive government is there to provide them handouts at the expense of taxpayers like themselves.
In truth, many Republicans have probably tempered their zeal against lawbreakers since Mr DeLay’s day and might compromise as far as to legalise the status of illegal immigrants without offering them citizenship.
Mr Boehner and Republican party leaders certainly would still like a compromise. Say what you like about their political skills, but the conservative leadership can still count.
Mitt Romney won just 27 per cent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election and his rhetoric about illegal immigrants helped colour the views of other communities. Only 26 per cent of Asians voted for him.
But the Tea Party bloc in Congress still has a controlling influence over the Republican caucus because of Mr Boehner’s reluctance to take on bills which split his members and leave him relying on Democrats for votes.
In other words, the same dysfunction that makes it difficult to get anything through Congress has not surprisingly waylaid immigration, one of the most difficult issues of all, as well. The stand-off may not hurt Republicans at the midterm elections, but if Mr Boehner cannot find a formula to move bits of the Senate bill through Congress, it could be fatal for the party’s candidate in 2016.
“You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you,” said Dick Armey, a former congressional leader. “We’ve chased the Hispanic voter out of his natural home.” At least on that last point, the Democrats agree, and last week may help ensure that Hispanics stay away from their Republican home for many years to come
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