How Republicans can avoid the immigration trap
House Speaker John Boehner and others have hinted Republicans may be willing to work with President Obama and other Democrats to pass an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Republicans need a deal, the thinking goes, to rebalance themselves with centrist voters and stem big Democratic advantages among the nation’s growing numbers of Hispanic voters.
But this is not the budget deal – a bitter but necessary pill the GOP had to swallow. Indeed, the politics on immigration argue not for urgent action on comprehensive legislation but on waiting for the right time to act selectively. Americans are deeply suspicious right now of huge, comprehensive government undertakings, divided on the best course for immigration reform and not at all sensing the urgency of a major immigration overhaul.
Republicans can’t assume they will move the polls more than a point or two among Hispanics by agreeing to comprehensive immigration reform. Whatever deal is struck, Democrats will be able to claim at least equal credit, and it invariably will be set up so it is easy for them to cheat. And, as we’ve seen from Obamacare, President Obama will not hesitate to “fix” any problems he sees in the legislation by executive order.
Second, the Hispanic vote has tilted increasingly Democratic in recent years – the share that went to Republicans has dropped from 40 percent for President George W. Bush in 2004 to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. It will take more than one bill to reverse this trend. Indeed, Republicans risk being accused of pandering if they go too far.
Third, attention devoted to immigration reform is attention that can’t instead be devoted to pointing out the failures of Obamacare. This is no time to dampen the outrage over the Affordable Care Act.
Fourth, Republicans must remind Hispanic voters of how little Democrats did for them even when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress during President Obama’s first two years in office. Even after Republicans retook the House in 2010, Democrats managed to sustain Obamacare, prevail in the shutdown and win a budget deal. But they accomplished nothing – because they attempted nothing – on immigration.
Fifth, Republicans must present ideas of their own. Beginning later in 2014, potential Republican Hispanic presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz should begin to unveil serious, yet tough, policy proposals, which should build toward a serious model the party and its candidates can agree on and trumpet during the 2014 and 2016 campaigns. If Democrats flatly refuse them, Republicans will know they are on the right track. This won’t move a lot of Hispanic votes into the Republican column in 2014 or 2016, but it could well pay dividends down the line, particularly if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016.
Sixth, Republican officeholders and candidates should never miss an opportunity to express how much they respect the work ethic and family cohesion of Hispanics in America – legal and illegal. But they then must point out that showing preference to the status of illegal Hispanic immigrants would be a slap in the face of the millions of legal applicants from countries throughout the world who have patiently waited to achieve legal status.
Seventh, Republicans must remain patient. Their stock among Americans improves on its own with nearly every passing day, and the potential to lure huge numbers of Hispanic voters in the short term is minimal – although that does not mean Republicans shouldn’t try. If it is 15 or 20 years before today’s illegal immigrants earn the right to vote, Republicans will have time to make their case, and many of those voters will have matured into conservatives. In the meantime, no benefits for illegals and, by all means and any means necessary, finish the fence.
In short, good, conservative immigration reform is within reach – one that addresses border security, visas and a path to citizenship for those already here. If that period is lengthy enough – it is 12 years or more in most proposals – the view of many of those new voters will have matured, and they will be open to conservative candidates. Indeed, the family values of Hispanic voters and their commitment to hard work and entrepreneurism are the best antidotes we know to the Democrats’ entitlement mentality.
But Republicans must be patient. It is President Obama and his allies in the Democratic Party who need a deal quickly. Republicans have little to gain and much to lose – in terms of legislative giveaways and executive end-runs – by acting with haste. Their plan should be to remind voters how little Democrats did when they had the opportunity act and follow up with proposals that address the problem.
The gains will be small, but acting in a rash, hasty or overly grand way will only help the Democrats. And to believe and act otherwise would not be wise.
Edward Dent, an investments and management expert, served in the Nixon campaign, both of President Reagan’s White House campaigns and with the group that developed the Strategic Defense Initiative. He is an expert on defense and judicial issues.