Why Republicans will never reform immigration
The Republican Party is never going to reform immigration. And it isn't just because of President Trump. The party's other leaders have decided that immigration is something you can talk about, use as an electoral wedge issue, or bang your fist about. But there will be no attempt to actually make policy on it, at least not anything that resembles the "reform" we've been promised for years.
We saw that clearly last week, when a small group of Republicans — "Most, but not all, represent swing districts with significant Latino constituencies or are retiring from the House," as The Washington Post noted — started a bit of a rebellion, attempting to get votes on the House floor on immigration reform proposals. They were trying to do it via a "discharge petition," a parliamentary technique that involves getting a majority of members to overrule the speaker of the House, who controls the schedule, and force a vote.
But Paul Ryan was having none of it. "Having some kind of spectacle on the floor that results in a veto doesn't solve this problem," he said. "What I don't want to do is have a process that just ends up with a veto. We actually want to solve the DACA problem."
But does he?
It depends on your definition of "want." I'm sure that in some corner of Republican lawmakers' hearts there is a bit of sympathy for DREAMers, the young people brought here as children who have done everything right and now face the prospect of deportation. President Trump, for instance, has talked many times about how he'll treat those terrific kids with compassion. But he also cancelled the DACA program. And he has lamented the fact that we get so many immigrants from "shithole countries," arguing that "we should have more people from places like Norway." His chief of staff, John Kelly, says that the trouble with undocumented immigrants is that they're "not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society."
The very fact that Trump is president shows why his party is incapable of reforming immigration, or ever coming to some sort of grand bargain of the type that has often been suggested, in which he'd get funding for his border wall and Democrats would get protection for DREAMers.
After the 2012 election, the party commissioned an "autopsy" to figure out where it should go next. "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," it said. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only." It also said that "the Republican Party is one of tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles."
Then Donald Trump came along and said, Oh yeah? Well get a load of this.
It's important to remember that the crowded field of Republican candidates Trump joined in 2015 were dancing carefully around the immigration issue. They knew it was tricky: The base didn't like anything that could be characterized as "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, but they needed to look reasonable and moderate for the general election.
But Trump, who has a sixth sense for the most rancid poison swirling about in the voters' id, realized they were all wrong. Forget about what the broader electorate says they want: The road to victory, he realized, was paved with hate and fear. He was different from the rest of the GOP contenders in many ways, but more than anything else he was the one that presented the most unadorned version of white nationalism on offer.
It wasn't an act, and it got him both the nomination and the presidency. But it goes beyond Trump. Imagine that he decided not to run for re-election, and a passel of GOP senators and governors tried to lead the party in 2020. Do you think any of them would propose comprehensive immigration reform? Would they be foolish enough to think that they could win over the party's base that way?
For Republicans in Congress, the calculation is much the same. There are some that favor it publicly, but most Republicans represent districts and states where their biggest fear is a primary challenge from the right — and nothing will get you that challenge quicker than going soft on the foreign horde.
The events of the last year and a half were predictable: the cancelling of the DACA program, a wider immigration crackdown, and the occasional insincere assurance from Republicans that they really do want to do comprehensive reform — eventually. Just not now.
So if you're waiting for it — and some people are with their very lives at stake — the bad news is that you're going to have to wait until there's a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress. And even then, Republicans are going to put up a fight.