The Republican Party's Impossible Immigration Balancing Act

The GOP chooses between handing Democrats a short-term victory or living with a long-term image problem.

Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on during a press conference, on Capitol Hill, July 9, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
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When it comes to immigration reform, House Republicans are in an impossible spot: Members are left balancing congressional elections with the GOP's larger 2016 interests, reluctant to hand a Democratic president a victory while hoping to make up ground with the Latino community.

[READ: How Immigration Reform Could Still Happen in 2014]

Today, the immigration debate is having an eleventh-hour renaissance on Capitol Hill. Republican leaders are showing a surprising willingness to tackle the polarizing issue in an election year, just as lawmakers in the party are preparing to fend off primary challengers and divert their attention from lawmaking to fundraising.

The Republican leadership in the House, which has at times made no secret of its divided vision for its caucus, appears united.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is expected to unveil a set of policy priorities later this month – a list of principles crafted with the help of Rebecca Tallent, a former immigration aide to moderate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., remains committed to his own rendition of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented children who entered the country illegally with their parents a chance to stay in the U.S. legally. And Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose district boasts a 30 percent Latino population, finally announced after months of protests, sit-ins and marches in his district that he supports a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Even the party's policy whiz kid and consensus builder, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has given his blessing and is fresh off a trip to Texas, where he told voters that leadership is looking for ways to encourage immigrants to "come out of the shadows."

The House is expected to move on eight bills this year that range from border security measures to new visa quotas.

"These will represent a smart approach," Ryan said. "We don't want to get into a situation where we end up with some big 1,000-page bill. But we do realize there are things that have to be sequenced."

But Republicans are walking a fine line as they wade into the immigration debate. In order to gain traction with Latino voters, they will have to do more than simply talk about a plan. They will have to enact one, take a comprehensive approach, shed the party's enforcement-only rhetoric and openly consider a path to legalization for the 11 million, an option that many lawmakers have struggled to publicly support. While Republicans nationally need Latino support to win elections, few members from GOP-controlled districts face a high volume of Latino voters back home to put pressure on them. Instead, it's anti-immigration reform activists who pressure sitting members to stay away from anything that resembles legalization for the 11 million.

"The policy solutions to the problem and the political viability of them are potentially miles apart," says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a nonpartisan immigration research group.

[ALSO: Obama Heckled at Immigration Speech in San Francisco]

A Pew Research Center survey found that while 89 percent of Latinos prioritize a path to citizenship, many say "being able to live and work in the U.S. legally without the threat of deportation is more important than a new government plan to obtain citizenship."

Experts observe that if Boehner passes a series of border enforcement bills and legislation boosting the number of visas for high-skilled workers, the Latino community won't be any more inclined to vote for Republicans in the 2016 presidential elections than they were in 2012. Yet, if Boehner can convince a large enough coalition of his party to support legalization for the 11 million, the party can begin to patch up its strained relationship with the Hispanic community and move on to issues where Republicans and minority voters actually share common ground.

"You cannot get out of a hole in one election cycle that we have been digging for ourselves since the Bush administration, but we can at least begin crawling out," says Dan Judy, a GOP pollster.