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Immigration Reform: GOP Push for STEM Act Will Not Save the Party

After a grueling loss at the polls in November, the Republican Party is on a quest to reform itself and re-identify with the average American voter in the process.  Commentators and analysts have argued that if the radical policies are not abandoned, or at least repackaged, the chances of success in future elections will remain slim.  

In recent years, the GOP has taken a hard-line perspective on immigration reform, tailoring the debate to a deportation versus amnesty discourse. This radicalism culminated in the Republican primaries, where proposed solutions embellished in inhumane rhetoric dominated the immigration debate.

Politics is big business, and the Latino vote is in high demand. Claiming 71% of the Latino vote in the last presidential election, the Democratic Party has carved out a large monopoly within this demographic. For many wearied Republicans, a more tempered approach to immigration reform may be the core policy area to tap into the Latino vote market. Even former President George W. Bush reemerged into the policy arena,  urging fellow conservatives to revamp the immigration system "with a benevolent spirit."

A more humane discourse on immigration would attract liberal voters, but if policies do not provide a pathway to legalization, the larger Latino constituency may be less likely to bend.  

Quick strides have already been made. Last Friday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the STEM Act, a bill that provides U.S. visas for foreign students in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. 30,000 visas would be allocated annually to qualified candidates, allowing them to remain in the U.S. after graduating. This program would be invaluable to the U.S. economy if it did not come at a cost: If it passes in the Senate, the STEM Act will eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, better known as the green card lottery.  

The visa lottery system was designed to diversify the immigrant population in the U.S. by awarding permanent residency visas to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States in the previous five years. Each year, 50,000 people are selected, and 80% of visas are allotted to nationals from Europe and Africa. (About half the people who currently come to the U.S. legally through the green card lottery are from Africa.)

Replacing the green card lottery visa with the STEM visa would cut down immigration rates to the United States by 20,000. Pushing for the STEM Act will further alienate Latinos from the GOP, because the law is not tailored to their main interest a path to legalization.  

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a long-time supporter of a more humane approach to the immigration problem, sums it up: “It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother. It's very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you're saying."

Softening immigration rhetoric will help "re-humanize" the GOP, but it will not resolve the deeper issues facing a party that has essentially lost touch with the mainstream voter. While immigration is an issue of critical interest for Latinos, they are not a one-dimensional population. Access to health care, job security, the economy, gay rights, abortion, and other issues that worry Americans in general are also areas of vital interest to the Latino constituency. The GOP would have to reform itself from the inside out requiring it to put the people before its powerful stakeholders and sponsors, a step the party may not be prepared to take at this time. 

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