Advocates of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy, and a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the country illegally, would have you think a victory is right around the corner. After all, this week the Senate passed, by a 68-32 margin, an ambitious piece of legislation that does just that, and it includes a massive infusion of money and manpower for border security, a perennial concern of the conservative Republicans who rose up in anger at the last effort to overhaul immigration in 2007. What’s more, the coalition favoring reform is bigger and more powerful (and wealthier) than ever — big business, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, labor unions, and the Evangelical Right are all on board. Now that the Senate has acted, they will spend the coming weeks furiously lobbying recalcitrant Republicans in the House to get on board before they consider the bill on July 10. The only problem is that some Republicans still don’t believe moving leftward, so to speak, on immigration will pay political dividends. In fact, some are convinced it will destroy their movement.
Of course, the wrangling by advocates of the immigration overhaul echoes the successful insider push to get all the key players on board with healthcare reform three years ago. The same kind of industry-approved dealmaking is in play; in this case, the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce, traditional foes on all matters economic, reached compromise language on low-wage migrants and high-skilled immigrants. Which is to say much of the traditional sausage-making inherent to the legislative process has been completed. What we still don’t know is the fundamental question of whether Republican elite thinking — that the party needs to change its posture toward Hispanics or face demographic destruction at the polls — has crept down to the lower rungs of the House Republican caucus, where Tea Party sentiment is still strong. Ted Cruz, the conservative Hispanic Tea Party Senator elected from Texas last year, is hard at work convincing the party it can do just as well among Latinos without passing the bill as with. Likewise, some analysts think the GOP can make a comeback with greater racial polarization (that is, winning an even larger chunk of the white vote) and that ceding a majority of Hispanics to Democrats is no suicidal act.
Stuck in the middle of all the competing voices is the party’s national chairman, Reince Priebus, who is calling for “comprehensive immigration reform” but being almost absurdly vague about what that means. His intent is clear — to leave maneuvering room for the House GOP to claim victory without surrendering on an issue important to their base. And his allusion to Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American GOP Senator from Florida whose leading role in crafting the legislation has earned him enmity from the right and presidential buzz as well, suggests we know roughly how the powers that be want this to end.
But to the extent that reform advocates are relying on the party essentially coming to grips with changing demographic trends, they might be in for a rude awakening. What is good for incumbent House Republicans in mostly white districts with few supporters of reform is not necessarily what is best for the national GOP brand. And “amnesty” for criminals is still a powerful campaign slogan for opponents. That lopsided Senate vote of 68-32 was only a bit more favorable than an eerily similar 62-36 margin in 2006; the Republican Party is even more conservative and marginalized now than back then — if also more cognizant of the electoral math — and expecting its House caucus, considerably to the right of leaders in the Senate, to go along with all of this remains a risky bet, indeed.