Immigration Reform 2013: Can Republicans Agree On a Way to Achieve It?

Republicans want the Hispanic vote, in order to be competitive in elections, and Hispanics want immigration reform. Easy, the Republican Party will propose an immigration overhaul. That’s about the only part that is certain. Republicans overwhelmingly support the idea of fixing the immigration problem, but they do not agree on how to achieve that.

Let us take a look at the various groups that have coalesced in Congress. First, we have the Gang of Eight, composed of Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Because of its bipartisan nature, this group has the mission of proposing a viable bill that can get through the Senate and break partisan gridlock. A more conservative group tackling immigration reform and made up of members of the Tea Party, including Rand Paul, will likely focus on passing an immigration bill in the lower chamber of Congress.

There are broader and thinner lines of disagreement. Granting amnesty to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., meaning citizenship and the right to vote, is a divisive topic with many preferring visa programs. How much priority is given to border security is another paramount side of the debate. Setting aside the broad disagreements, as they get closer to the details of an immigration bill, reaching an agreement will be even more difficult since the eventual specificities required to become a citizen or to secure the border demand additional compromise.   

Every Republican is seeking to merge a portion of the Hispanic population into their constituencies, but first, each has to deal with present constituencies to ensure they can maintain their seats in 2014. This is a crucial determinant of the alignment each politician will prefer. Polls showed that forty-five percent of American citizens who associate with the Tea Party support a path to citizenship, 16% favor granting only visas to undocumented immigrants, and thirty-six percent favor deportation. This means that politicians will move on the sub-issue of citizenship depending of where their constituency stands on the issue. This is the current trend, letting politics work from the bottom-up to preserve the seat of each politician. 

Marco Rubio is a good study case since most people believe he is considering the presidency in 2016. Florida, with an important Latino population, allowed him to instantly shift attention towards immigration reform after Romney’s defeat. Success for him will require a careful analysis of the nation-wide Republican constituency in order to remain viable for nomination within the GOP. Recent comments showed he is putting the brakes on the work made by the Gang of Eight and will need to carefully analyze how any bill proposed by this group will affect his image going into the primaries. An issue that has nothing to do with immigration reform will therefore play into what type of agreement can be reached due to the political players involved.

Playing the game of politics is inevitable but the degree of difficulty that Republicans have to face to stay politically alive is too high to concentrate on finding a realistic solution to the immigration issue. The opinion of the Republican base is changing, but not fast enough to allow for the types of positions Republicans need to hold to show they represent honest change and are not merely performing political calculation using Hispanics for votes. Hope, however, comes from Republicans who figured out that changing the opinions of the different constituencies is the key moving forward.

Financial groups and conservative groups have made strategic moves to alleviate obstacles due to public opinion. SuperPACs, such as Republicans for Immigration Reform and the Hispanic Leadership Forum, are using their wallets to run TV ads that will seek to create the cover needed for politicians to adopt new positions on immigration. Grover Norquist is reviving up the grassroots by holding focus groups to analyze what is the best way to present immigration reform to the Republican base. So far so good. Voters seem to answer rather well to immigration reform when it is framed in economic terms.

Republican politicians need to create much more change than they are able to through speeches and votes. Luckily, some Republicans have figured out that opinions need to change among the most conservative parts of the party and are acting with financial resources. Agreeing will be difficult, but it looks more promising now that Republicans and Democrats have a new-found urgency in reaching a deal.

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Jean Pierre Salendres

As a junior at Columbia University, I am majoring in Political Science with particular interest in Energy, Immigration, and Education policy. I was born in Mexico City from a French father and a Mexican mother. Immigrating to the United States at the age of 11 sparked in me an interest for policy and social activism.

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