Long a priority of the faith community, comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Our response to thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border points to the consequences of our broken immigration system and our broken politics. Instead of using the legislative process to institute a reform that a majority of the people and their representatives favor, it appears that we are going to muddle along and deal with the issue incrementally in accordance with what best suits the Republican Party’s political interests.
What should have happened—truly for the best interests of all—is straightforward. In 2013, U.S. Senators on both sides of the aisle created a bipartisan, comprehensive plan to secure our borders, protect intact immigrant families, and offer a pathway to citizenship for those who were in the U.S. illegally but who were willing to wait in line, pay a fine, and meet other requirements. Neither party received all of what it wanted, but the Senate nonetheless compromised and passed a good piece of legislation last July. That’s what competent, functional legislative chambers do.
Unfortunately, on the other side of the Capitol, we no longer have a competent, functional legislative chamber. The House of Representatives should have passed the bipartisan Senate bill. House Speaker John Boehner is, like his predecessors, loath to pass legislation that a majority of his party opposes. Yet at key moments, Boehner has broken this unwritten rule (called the “Hastert Rule”) and passed legislation with mostly Democratic votes in order to avoid political harm to his party (as when he reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act) or economic calamity to the nation (as when he ended the GOP’s shutdown of the federal government and prevented the Tea Party from forcing the U.S. to default on the national debt). Though he claimed he wanted to lead on immigration, Boehner was bullied into submission by his party’s right flank. His weak leadership means that, in the end, broader Republican political and electoral considerations will determine when the House GOP will, and it inevitably will, hold its nose and pass immigration reform.
The House Republican Conference is divided on the issue of immigration and, among its manifold disagreements about policy and politics, clearly lacks a consensus view on the party’s future self-interest. To most Republican leaders, it is clear that the party must expand its reach to groups other than churchgoing and/or affluent whites. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an author of the Senate bill, warns the GOP not to be “delusional” about immigration. “If we keep playing this game that self deportation is the only answer for the Republican Party, we will have destroyed our chances in 2016 and dealt a death blow to our party” because of long term demographic changes, Graham said.
In this line of thinking, it is not only good policy but also good politics for the GOP to support immigration reform. Republicans should want to compete for the growing Hispanic vote. They should not cede it to the Democrats for generations as they did with African Americans. Liberty University’s Mat Staver and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez argue that embracing immigration is consistent with Christian values and conservative politics: “If we ever hope to see a social conservative return to the White House, we would do well to encourage our legislators to embrace the bipartisan proposals for immigration reform.”
The faith coalition that emerged to support immigration reform was almost unprecedented in its unanimity. It was quite an achievement to bring the less reflexively partisan elements of the Christian right alongside the Catholic Church and liberal and ethnic minority Protestant groups. Conservative faith leaders are used to having their way with Republicans on sex-related issues. Catholics and moderate evangelicals are often influential because neither party owns them. I have written elsewhere about why even conservative evangelical support could not save immigration reform. It is actually quite normal for GOP leaders to defy their pastors, bishops, and denominations. They do it on non-sex-related issues every day. Faith leaders’ activism, however admirable, is rarely decisive. Greater political forces conspired to render the near-unanimous voice of the faith community virtually irrelevant. The Republican Party knows that Southern Baptists and Mormons aren’t going anywhere.
The politics of the issue are more complex than many advocates let on. Immigration reform would be a difficult vote for GOP representatives in relatively homogenous white districts. Just because the Republicans as presently constituted have no future in 2050 does not mean they cannot survive—and even thrive—as a white party for the next several decades. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels reminds us, “Even momentous demographic changes occur slowly; non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years, and a majority of the electorate even longer.” In the meantime, empirical research suggests that the specter of increased immigration could create a white backlash that further benefits the GOP.
If the House GOP thought immigration reform would improve its prospects of adding to its majority in 2014, it would have acted. Many observers still expect Boehner to pass the reform next year in order to take it off the table for 2016. But if the GOP strategy is to maximize the white vote and cede overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Asian American votes to the Democrats, it may prefer to punt on immigration through the 2016 presidential nominating contest as well. After all, there are comparatively few Hispanics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other winter primary states. The early states that actually do have a sizeable number of Hispanics, Nevada and Colorado, use a caucus system. In any case, few Hispanics vote in Republican primaries because they increasingly identify as Democrats.
House inaction carries one more important benefit for Republicans. In forcing the president to issue executive orders to mitigate the mounting adverse effects of our broken immigration system, the GOP can spin this as further evidence of Obama’s abuse of executive authority.
My friend Mark Tooley is correct to point out that only a small group of utopian liberals wants amnesty and open borders. But neither amnesty nor open borders was ever a part of any serious policy discussion.
Our leaders had ample opportunities to do the right thing, but a powerful minority chose intransigence over compromise and obstruction over governance. The undemocratic result was precisely the opposite of what should have been done. This ruinous course exacerbates the brokenness of Congress, divisions within the Republican Party, and the perilously fractured relationship between the executive and legislative branches. It also helps ensure that the hyper-racialized nature of our politics will continue to be prominent for years to come.