Republicans Reconsidering Immigration Reform

Republicans must change their strategy in order to win back alienated Latino voters.

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"The Presidency" column appears in U.S. News Weekly.


It's becoming increasingly clear that immigration will be a breakthrough issue next year.

President Obama has been in favor of what he calls comprehensive immigration reform for a long time, which would include creating a "path" to citizenship or legal residency for millions of illegal immigrants.

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Republicans have resisted for years, arguing that what Obama wants would be a form of amnesty for unlawful entry into the United States. But the November election showed that this position has alienated many Hispanic voters, who believe the GOP is against them. One result was that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who called for "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants, lost the Latino vote to Obama by more than 40 percentage points, a major reason for Romney's defeat.

Now, Republicans are rethinking the whole issue. Among those expected to take the lead are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising star in the GOP, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the Republican vice-presidential nominee this year. It's interesting and significant that both Rubio and Ryan are considered possible presidential candidates in 2016. They seem to realize that the GOP needs to make inroads with Hispanic voters in order to recapture the White House in four years.

Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, another possible presidential contender in 2016, also wants Republicans to move quickly on immigration reform by proposing their own overhaul of immigration laws that Hispanics might support. It was Bush's brother, President George W. Bush, who attempted to get such a bill through Congress several years ago, but he failed because of conservative objections.

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There is still strong sentiment in the Republican Party to resist comprehensive reform that is seen to reward people who entered the country illegally by giving them a chance to gain citizenship before those who followed the rules. "The smart Republicans know they can't leave this hanging out there," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "But the Republicans are still very divided against themselves."

For their part, White House officials think there has been enough of a shift on the GOP side that, despite the polarization on other issues, prospects for passage of an immigration bill are brightening.

Adding to the pressure for reform, Latino activists promise to hold politicians in Washington strictly accountable over the immigration issue, and leaders of several Latino organizations and unions have served notice that they will push hard for "comprehensive reform" next year. The groups include the National Council of La Raza, the Service Employees International Union, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Voto Latino.

Members of Congress are very aware of the surge in the Latino population that makes alienating this segment of voters close to political suicide. The Hispanic population is projected to increase from 17 percent of the total in the United States today to 31 percent in 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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And a new study by the conservative Resurgent Republic and the Hispanic Leadership Network finds more bad news for the GOP. Majorities of Hispanic voters polled in the key states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico agreed with the statement that "the Republican Party does not represent the values and concerns of the Hispanic community." And majorities of Hispanics surveyed in each of those four states said the GOP is "anti-immigrant" while the Democrats are seen as the party that "understands the needs and concerns of Hispanics."

The study adds: "To be competitive nationally in the future, Republicans must do better among non-white Americans, especially Hispanics and Asians. If Republicans achieve [support from] 40 percent or more of Hispanics nationally, they can elect conservative Republicans to national office. Settling for a quarter or less of the Hispanic vote nationally will relegate Republicans to a regional party with few national prospects....Years of harsh rhetoric and punitive polices will not be undone overnight. Fixing a broken immigration system is necessary, but not sufficient to make Republicans competitive in the Hispanic community."

But working for immigration reform would be a crucial first step.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" on usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook or reach him at kwalsh@usnews.com.