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How conservatives might hurt Republicans on immigration

January 30, 2013, at 10:45 AM
A person holds a Spanish sign reading "Immigration Reform Now" during a watch party of President Obama's speech on Jan. 29.

A person holds a Spanish sign reading "Immigration Reform Now" during a watch party of President Obama's speech on Jan. 29. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Us. Them.

There is quite a lot of posturing about who will introduce what part of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), 2013-style. It seems an article of faith that Republicans will take the lead on several initiatives, because they know that a bill associated with President Obama will be too much for them to sell to their base, and because party leaders genuinely want to take the issue off the front burner.

But how is this supposed to work?

GOP strategists and the establishment certainly understand that the party has a problem with Hispanics. And yes, the inability of Congress to pass immigration reform has contributed to the idea that Republicans don't want it.

But the real thing that's turned off Hispanics has nothing to do with legislation or even enforcement. (If enforcement was correlated with political adulation, President Obama would be in trouble with Latinos. He is not.)

What mattered is what the party stood for at its core: What it expects of others and what it expects of everyone else. And the core of the Republican Party today does not believe that the immigration reform approach now championed by its own leaders is right for the country or fair to Americans who already live here.

And for Republicans who are looking to shake up the party, immigration remains a fabulous issue. Fabulous. A conservative revolt is inevitable, I think. The talk show vocalists of the base just hate the idea that de-facto amnesty will depend upon President Obama's enforcement initiatives. They hate the fact that the GOP leadership has bought into the (Democratic/media) idea that undocumented Latinos need and want government subsidies and sanction for their crime. They don't believe that Hispanics will shift toward the GOP anyway, unless the GOP truly focuses on the things that conservatives like to essentialize about Hispanics: They're family-oriented, religious, entrepreneurial. 

But they recognize that Marco Rubio is the best voice the party has right now, and it's still January of 2013.  

Give it time. 

Is it fair to magnetize U.S. borders and give businesses a cheap supply of new labor at the expense of Americans who are looking for jobs? Will the tax base really broaden because most new immigrants won't make enough money to pay federal income taxes?  

The moment conservatives make immigration into a 2014 election issue, insisting that their candidates either disavow what they voted on in 2013 or promise to repeal it is the moment that the party's attempt to make amends with Hispanics gets put on hold. 

An enterprising 2016 presidential candidate (Sen. Ted Cruz? Sarah Palin?) could step in to represent this part of the party.

Truth be told, I don't know how Republicans solve their "Latino" problem anytime soon. It is manifold and multi-causal. But the coming "us versus them" backlash will not be helpful.

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