How badly must Republicans lose for immigration reform to win?

The idea that a sufficiently brutal electoral drubbing would impel Republicans to back reform has become quaint

Immigration protest
(Image credit: (John Moore/Getty Images))

Immigration reform looks to be dead. Again. With the 2014 midterms bearing down and House Republicans standing pat, activists who pushed hard to get a bill passed in this session of Congress are making valedictory speeches about their efforts and looking to the future.

MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin spoke to several pro-reform advocates who now expect President Obama to do what he can through executive orders. The strategy extends beyond November to the next presidential contest. "Immigration advocates hope to repeat the cycle by forcing the White House to take unilateral action," Sarlin wrote, "which would set the stage for Latino voters to punish the GOP in 2016, which in turn would pressure Republican leaders to finally cave on reform."

The key word from that quote is "finally." The idea that a sufficiently brutal electoral drubbing would impel Republicans to back immigration reform is, at this point, quaint. As the relationship between Latino voters and the Republican Party has steadily deteriorated over the last decade, politicians from both sides of the aisle have more than once expressed hope that the tipping point had "finally" been reached. And yet it never has. So exactly how bad politically must it get for Republicans before we can expect immigration reform to pass?

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The answer seems to be nothing short of catastrophically bad. Since 2004, when George W. Bush took home somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of the Latino vote, the Republican Party has done everything in its power to destroy its standing with Latino voters, engaging in some of the most politically self-destructive behavior imaginable.

After Bush's second inauguration, conservative House Republicans defied his proposals to implement paths to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and instead passed a draconian immigration bill that beefed up security measures and made it a felony to be present in the country illegally. Moderate Senate Republicans joined Democrats in passing a comprehensive reform bill, but the House GOP dug in and refused to consider the Senate bill. The Republicans (including several prominent anti-reform legislators) were booted out of power in 2006, taking just 29 percent of the Latino vote.

At the time, voices within the party seemed to understand that Republicans needed to get it right on immigration. "There has been too much of an anti-immigrant tone," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). "There are a lot of Republicans who just want this issue behind us," said then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Advocacy groups sought to capitalize on the new political dynamic and get a bill passed in 2007.

But, again, nothing happened. The new Democratic Congress' comprehensive immigration reform package ran into a seething, grinding maelstrom of opposition from nativists and right-wing hard-liners. The legislation died in the Senate, and then the issue took a backseat to the 2008 election. John McCain, a longtime supporter of comprehensive reform, bucked his own principles and played to the conservative base, pushing border security and going so far as to say he'd vote against his own legislation. McCain took 31 percent of the Latino vote.

The 2010 midterms actually saw the GOP do slightly better with Latino voters, taking 38 percent in House races and electing a number of Latinos to high-profile statewide positions. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) looked at these isolated data points from a single electoral cycle and extrapolated a sunny future for Republicans. "The 2010 election actually paints a very bright picture of the Republican Party's relations with this country's growing Hispanic population," Smith wrote in The Washington Post.

Smith's optimism butted up against the reality of Republican politics leading into 2012, when the GOP standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, famously adopted "self-deportation" as part of an immigration policy that would endear him to wary conservatives. The Republican share of the Latino vote plummeted again to a dismal 27 percent.

Once more, hope for comprehensive immigration reform was spied in the Republican political wreckage. "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all," Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on ABC the day after the election. "When Republicans lost in November it was a wake-up call," Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus said upon the release of the RNC's Growth and Opportunity Project report, which called for passing comprehensive reform. "It was such a clear two-by-four to the head in the 2012 election," said report co-author Ari Fleischer of Romney's anemic Latino support.

And yet, here we are again at an impasse. The Senate passed yet another comprehensive reform bill, but Boehner refuses to touch it. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) helped shepherd that bill to passage, but he now says he no longer supports it. The House Republican leadership released a series of immigration "principles," but they won't put anything to an actual vote.

This mystifying cycle is stuck on repeat. Each time Republicans come close to a moment of clarity on immigration, they backslide out of a perceived need to appease the conservative base. The GOP's projected gains in the midterms and growing apathy among frustrated Latino voters serve only to embolden Republicans and further delay action.

So would another presidential defeat in 2016 be traumatic enough to get the Republicans with the program? Perhaps. If the party sees its gains in Congress pared back and its share of the Latino vote dips below Romney's weak showing, then maybe it will finally be forced to act out of self-preservation.

Then again, such action would require active cooperation with a Democratic president, which Republicans in Congress can only seem to manage when their hand is forced by an impending crisis — defaulting on debt, careening over fiscal cliffs, and the like. Also, signing on to immigration reform would hand the Democratic president a victory that the party denied to George W. Bush. And if that Democratic president happens to bear the surname Clinton, then the prospect for rational behavior from congressional Republicans becomes all the more unlikely.

(Image courtesy David McNew/Getty Images)

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Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is a political writer and researcher in Washington, DC. His work has been published by The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Salon.