A bipartisan group of senators on Monday released a preliminary outline of a comprehensive immigration reform package, raising hopes among reform advocates that Republicans and Democrats can reach a deal to provide the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. While many details need to be worked out, the proposal already has the tentative support of President Obama. "The president welcomes the efforts by the bipartisan group in the Senate," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who went on to praise the fact that it "mirrors" immigration proposals that Obama made on the campaign trail.
The compromise represents a dramatic about-face for the GOP, whose 2012 nominee for president, Mitt Romney, ran to the right of his primary opponents on immigration and advocated a law-and-order-style crackdown that would encourage the undocumented to "self-deport." Many influential members of the conservative media have dropped their hardline stances and expressed support for the plan, largely in response to a targeted public relations campaign spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising star in the Republican Party.
The conventional wisdom is that the GOP is willing to compromise on immigration reform in order to have some chance of winning Latino voters, 71 percent of whom voted for Obama in the last election. The idea is that by removing immigration as a wedge issue, the Republican Party can woo Latinos who may split with the Democratic mainstream on a host of other issues, from the size of government to abortion.
But some conservatives argue that the GOP may be setting itself up for disappointment, since Latino voters also largely share the Democratic vision of a larger government. As David Frum at The Daily Beast writes:
The claim that Hispanic voters are "natural Republicans" is based on nothing but wishful thinking, fortified by ignorance.
Economically struggling Hispanics need and want more government than the GOP will offer them, and the 11 million illegals soon to embark on their "path to citizenship" will need and want even more: Earned Income Tax Credits, Medicaid, Section 8 housing, food stamps, and so on. [Daily Beast]
Indeed, Latinos have consistently supported the Democratic Party, a trend that suggests the GOP may need to do more than reform the immigration system. According to Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post:
The problem for Rubio — and other pro-reform Republicans — is that Latinos need more than a softer line on immigration if they're going to support GOP candidates at any level of government. Latinos have been a reliable Democratic constituency for more than thirty years — Walter Mondale won 66 percent of Latinos, Michael Dukakis won 70 percent, and on average, Democratic presidential candidates finish with 63.5 percent support from Hispanic voters.
The reason is straightforward: Latinos are more liberal than the median voter. [Washington Post]
If that's the case, would Republicans be willing to moderate their positions on other issues? So far, despite much talk about reforming its image, the GOP appears to be taking a hard line on everything else, argues Jonathan Chait at New York:
Substantive compromise on taxes and spending is off the map of the entire intra-Republican debate. It is to do nothing at all. [Rep. Paul] Ryan argues that Republicans should simply endure the next four years and hope to win the next election cycle when they can implement their ideas. [New York]
Still, while the Republican Party may not solve all its problems with Latino voters in one fell swoop, it has to start somewhere.
One last wrinkle: While momentum is on the side of reform, the possibility remains that more conservative members of the House will rebel against any reform package, which could mean double trouble for the GOP: No reform and a bitterly divided party to boot.