If immigration reform fails, the GOP may be doomed

If Republicans have any hope of winning back Latinos, they must end their fierce internal divisions on immigration

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There are already storm clouds gathering on the Republican Party's right-most political horizon. But if the GOP squelches comprehensive immigration reform, the party could face a devastating political hurricane in the near future.

Conservatives have long felt burned due to 1986's bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which reformed immigration policy and became part of President Ronald Reagan's legacy. As The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty notes, "both sides of the immigration debate see it as a cautionary lesson.... Critics contend that the law actually contributed to making the situation worse." There were 3 to 5 million illegal immigrants then, and 11 million plus now.

In 1986, I covered the act's implementation as a reporter on The San Diego Union newspaper. In the end, the amnesty provision was a success, but the law failed to stem illegal border crossings. Perhaps the biggest and least publicized flop was the government's failure in imposing sanctions on employers who violated the act. The scuttlebutt was the government looked the other way since businessmen needed cheap labor.

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What happened next serves as a warning for today's national Republican Party. The act's most joyous proponent was the late Harold Ezell, commissioner for the INS's western region under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Ezell later helped write 1994's Proposition 187, which sought to save California money by denying education, health services, and social services to illegal immigrants. Proposition 187 was later ruled unconstitutional. The names of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who backed the bill, and the California Republican Party became mud among Latino voters. The California Republican Party still hasn't recovered.

In recent years, new efforts at substantive immigration reform have ended like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown: right when proponents thought comprehensive immigration reform was within their grasp, a key player — often conservative Republicans — yanked it away from them. President George W. Bush and Karl Rove couldn't get the kind of immigration reform they sought as part of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" approach, and Rove's dream of capturing the growing Latino vote for Republicans was dashed.

Bush later told ABC News: "I firmly believe that the immigration debate really didn't show the true nature of America as a welcoming society. I fully understand we need to enforce law and enforce borders. But the debate took on a tone that undermined the true greatness of America, which is that we welcome people who want to work hard and support their families."

If Democrats are largely united on the issue, today's split within the Republican Party — and splits within that split — seem to be growing by the day.

Some Senate Republicans seem to be gravitating toward a reform package. And the website Republicans for Immigration Reform has quotes from pro-immigration bigwigs in the GOP like former President George W. Bush, former Texas. Sen. Kay Bailey Huchinson, and even Mr. No Tax himself, Grover Norquist.

On the other side of the GOP immigration divide is the conservative Heritage Foundation, which disingenuously puts the cost for a path to citizenship at $6.3 trillion. Foundation president and former Sen. Jim DeMint declared:" "No sensible thinking person could read this study and conclude that over 50 years that this could possibly have a positive economic impact." (The report failed to convince many, including many conservatives.)

Meanwhile, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is playing a delicate game. He pointedly criticized Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's plan as being "a little bit like ObamaCare," but insists he only meant that it was overly specific. Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan warned on PBS's The McLaughlin Group that amnesty and a path to citizenship would "lead to the erasure of the southern border." Conservative talkers Glenn Beck and Mark Levin oppose immigration reform, which Rush Limbaugh calls it political "suicide."

But the most significant split, Politico points out, is between Rubio and DeMint:

The Rubio-DeMint clash is the highest-profile example yet of a division in the Republican Party — between those who believe immigration reform is a must-do to win national elections against those who argue it's a betrayal of conservative values. The stakes are high, since the winning camp could not only determine the fate of any immigration bill in the GOP-controlled House — but even the future of the Republican Party. [Politico]

The Gang of Eight's bill now faces a series of obstacles, including a split over green cards for same-sex couples and a flood of amendments. Some GOP amendments are ridiculous. And although some political forces are lining up against immigration, a large number of organizations are aggresively lobbying for it.

The lingering question is what kind of bill could pass the conservative House. If immigration reform is axed by the House, the Republican Party could face a long national political winter. And if a final bill is watered down or perceived as excessively punitive, many will believe Congress has failed — again.

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