The failure of the Senate to pass gun-control legislation was a stunning upset for President Barack Obama, but the bill’s collapse could pave the way for immigration reform. Restricting gun rights and revamping immigration at once would be too politically costly for moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in swing states. And in the end, immigration reform was the more politically palatable issue to take a stand on.
Vice President Joe Biden even acknowledged that any new attempts at gun control would have to take place after immigration reform. Similar sentiments were echoed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who said, “Both of them provoke strong, emotional responses, and so I guess to the extent that one of them is moved to the sidelines, that provides some modest relief.” Compromising on both issues in a short period of time could cause Republicans to face serious repercussions from voters.
But immigration is a more politically demanding issue for Republicans. Mitt Romney won only 27% of the Latino vote last November, and this could be partially explained by his harsh stance on immigration. Sheer demographics will force the GOP to address this issue, unlike gun control. “Republicans have got to compete for the Hispanic vote,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during the formal launch of the bipartisan immigration bill.
Also unlike gun control, immigration reform has been a bipartisan effort for months. The Gang of Eight, a group of four Democratic and four Republican Senators, started working on this bill last year in an attempt to bridge the gaps on this polarizing issue. Slowly, the group is gathering a supermajority to support the bill in the Senate. Admittedly, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) did attempt to forge a bipartisan compromise on guns, they were unable to form a solid consensus on the issue.
Most important, though, is the fact that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Tea Party supporter and Republican Party torchbearer, is leading the calls for overhauling immigration. Rubio is banking his political future on reform, and the GOP is banking its future on Rubio. If Republicans bury the bill, then they will also be burying Rubio. On gun control, President Obama largely drove the issue, which only incentivized Republicans to oppose any change. With Rubio out front and Obama supporting the bill from the sidelines, senators can avoid having their conservative credentials tarnished.
Moreover, in contrast to gun control, there are no powerful interest groups that support the status quo in regards to immigration reform. The NRA was a much more powerful political force than its rivals, the Brady Campaign and Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The tables are turned in this case, though. Reform is supported by groups as diverse as the agriculture industry, Silicon Valley technology companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO. At the press conference where the bill was unveiled, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, even stood side-by-side with Rich Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Business moguls like Rupert Murdoch, J.W. Marriott, and Mark Zuckerberg, and labor unions like the SEIU both support reform.
Finally, immigration simply does not rile up voters the way gun issues do. Gun owners tend be more politically active than those who do not own guns. One in five gun owners contacted politicians about gun control issues, compared to one in 10 non-gun-owners who did the same. Although there are certainly passionate immigration and anti-immigration advocates, the issue does not generate as visceral a reaction as a constitutional issue like gun control.
However, there still remain significant obstacles to the bill’s passage. It must eventually go through the House, and the House Republicans hate compromise. The most relevant Republicans on immigration in the House are hardliners Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration. Goodlatte immediately criticized the Gang of Eight’s proposal after it was released and believed it made the same mistakes as past attempts to reform immigration. Republican senators will likely follow the strategy used to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, in which they forged strong consensus in the upper chambers and forced the House to reluctantly accept compromise. Already, about half of the Senate’s 45 Republicans are expected to vote in favor of the bill compared to the paltry four that supported gun control.
Partisan politics may have sunk any hope of gun-safety legislation, but the relevant forces and circumstances are coalescing for the country’s broken immigration system to finally be repaired.