Clarence Page: Immigration wedge issue splits GOP

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 08:10 PM

Immigration ironically has become the sort of wedge issue for Republicans that Republicans used to inflict on Democrats.
Back when liberal Democrats dominated Washington in the 1960s, Republicans like Richard M. Nixon divided their opposition with issues like racial quotas, welfare reform and “crime in the streets.” Their success showed up in the “Reagan Democrats,” among others who helped the Grand Old Party win five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.
But six years ago we saw President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, among other Republicans, abandon their push for comprehensive immigration reform against stiff opposition from their party’s right wing. To the right, Bush’s “pathway to citizenship” looked like Ronald Reagan’s amnesty from the 1980s, which led to today’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
It also led to a lot of demagogic rhetoric about “illegals,” border fences and self-deportation in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries that led to nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat, according to the post-election “autopsy” report ordered by party leaders.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation),” said the report, “they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”
Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to President Bush’s modern-day record of 44 percent in 2004, which also happened to be the only presidential election in the last six in which the Republican nominee won the popular vote, the report noted.
As former Texas Rep. Dick Armey, now a tea party movement leader, was quoted as saying in the report, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”
Suddenly comprehensive immigration reform came back to life as Republican leaders sounded ready to try everything short of putting on sombreros and singing “La Bamba” to court the Hispanic vote.
But as a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” brought a compromise bill to the Senate floor, a new divide opened up, particularly in the House, whose members answer to districts gerrymandered to be as conservative and, therefore, as reliably Republican as possible.
Republicans lawmakers found themselves on the horns of a demographic dilemma: Should they support the bill and risk challenges from even farther right in the next primaries? Or should they oppose the bill and risk the Grand Old Party’s ability to win the White House or control Congress — as the Census Bureau expects non-Hispanic whites also to become a minority by the mid-2040s?
The current Senate compromise includes a pathway to citizenship to please the left and stronger border security to answer the right’s concerns, but it may not be enough.
A “border surge” amendment negotiated by Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota would spend more than $3.2 billion on new surveillance equipment, hundreds more miles of fencing and 20,000 more border patrol agents — or one for every thousand feet, as supporters described the new manpower.
But House Republicans already were making noise about how security wasn’t strong enough on the borders to please them, much to the frustration of such prominent conservative voices as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “For some Republicans, border security has become a ruse to kill reform,” it declared. “The border could be defended by the 10th Mountain Division and Claymore antipersonnel mines and it wouldn’t be secure enough.”
Opponents were not sufficiently impressed with the Congressional Budget Office assessment that the immigration overhaul would reduce the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars — or with the recent Gallup Poll that found 87 percent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship, a proposal at the heart of the Senate’s measure.
The wedge issue of immigration has opened a wider divide in the GOP’s internal civil war. After benefiting from the energy of the far-right tea party movement, the party’s pragmatic establishment has to find ways to corral those energies long enough to help fix our broken immigration system — and the party’s suddenly uncertain future.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.