Two events recently started me thinking about immigration reform and the Grand Ole’ Party; Jeb Bush’s recent comments on illegal immigration being an “act of love” and Nancy Pelosi’s comments that the GOP’s opposition to reform is partly based on race. Beyond the obvious senility of Pelosi’s statement and Bush’s pandering to the Hispanic vote is the politics of immigration reform are complicated. More important and unfortunately for immigration reform, whether it be comprehensive or piecemeal, both the GOP and Democratic Party have an investment in ensuring it does not happen.
Democrats are invested in reform never occurring to continue to caricature the GOP as the party of old, white men. This allows them to continue to play race as a wedge issue (see link above). Democrats fervently seem to believe as the nation becomes more diverse that minorities will continue to stick with their party. Only the future will tell us if this is true. Democrats are not the only ones that play on immigration reform. Numerous Republicans also use the issue to gin up the grassroots. Steve King, a Congressman from Iowa, has consistently stoked the flames of opposition to immigration reform through comments such as “illegal immigrants kill people every day.”
King is not the only Republican that opposes any form of reform for illegal immigrants. It is certainly understandable the GOP position that those waiting in line for citizenship (as in legally came here) should receive their citizenship first. But it is harder to understand why the GOP would kill an effort to grant citizenship to children of illegal immigrants that serve in the military.
I have been on record arguing against redistricting being a primary reason for GOP opposition. The thinking goes that the GOP has drawn themselves into more whiter, more Republican and more suburban/rural districts since 2010. This is certainly true but other than anecdotal evidence there is a dearth of statistical or political data to back up the assertion this has led to gridlocked politics. In fact, recently political statistician guru Nate Silver found that many Republicans are more moderate on reform than most initially think. If true, this means that many elected Republicans have personal objections to immigration reform as opposed to predominately political and electoral ones.
It also suggests that while both parties seem to have an investment in reform failing or at least being held up in the short term, there is hope for reform in the future. The Senate’s comprehensive reform package was never going to pass muster in the GOP dominated House. Illustrated above, these members represent more homogeneous constituencies than Senators but it is notable that so few Senate Republicans supported their chamber’s reform. House Republican leadership insists that they plan to bring up reform in pieces in the future but that future is likely to extend beyond 2014. Republicans hope to control both the Senate and House and thus have a stronger position at the bargaining table for 2015 or beyond.
If enough Republicans are sincere about reform than it really is up to Democrats the fate of reform. Call me a cynic but Democrats are even more invested in reform failing than the GOP. Democrats have consistently turned wedge issues such as education, immigration and social issues into winning campaign themes. Allowing the GOP to pass reform, even piecemeal and incomplete, would complicate Democrat’s immigration narrative. It is unlikely that Hispanics would turn Republican overnight but they might start voting more Republican in close races. The Democratic coalition is becoming ever more based on upper scale whites, the young and minorities. In particular states, Democrats can ill afford to lose percentages among Hispanics in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.
Presidentially, a Republican running for the party’s nod while being sympathetic to illegal immigrants might not be a game-changer. Especially if the candidate is Jeb Bush. Bush has the capability to absorb a loss in Iowa, win or finish competitively in New Hampshire, finish competitively or win South Carolina and court enough donors to fight to more moderate primary states such as Nevada, Florida, Michigan, etc. This runs contrary to much of the current political analysis circulating.
All in all, the politics of immigration reform is complicated and partisan. Yet, it is not as partisan as one might first assume. Not all Republicans are opposed to reform. Rather, it depends on the individual member and what form reform will take. As for Democrats, I do not mean to imply every member has an investment in reform failing. But there can be little doubt Democrats benefit from playing on the immigration reform issue.