The 2012 election showed that the Republican Party has two long-term problems: poor support from Asian and Hispanic voters, who represent the two largest-growing ethnic groups in the nation, and an inferior digital outreach and mobilization system. The current push for immigration reform gives it a chance to rectify one of those issues now.
Republicans have more to gain from immigration reform more than Democrats and much more to lose. President Obama wants an immigration proposal on his desk to serve as his second term legacy accomplishment. Republicans need to make inroads into the fastest growing segments of our society and get some credit for solving the problem in a bipartisan way or be consigned to minority party status for the foreseeable future.
At its core, immigration is an inherently conservative issue. Why do people choose to come to the United States? Freedom to speak and worship as they please; economic opportunity; and the ability to thrive in society as long as one works hard and plays by the rules. However, these broader Republicans principles are obscured by the harsh “self deport” style rhetoric most commonly associated with the party. Clearing up the rules for entry will allow the GOP to make the bigger pitch to those potential voters.
According to Pew Research, the Hispanic electorate could double by 2030. Currently, 17.6 million Latinos in the United States are under the age of 18 – 93% of them are U.S. born and soon to be eligible voters. Removing any nativist stigma that the party may have is crucial for any outreach program to succeed.
Additionally, Asian Americans represent the fastest growing ethnic group in the nation. Right now they overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but an immigration plan could serve as an opening to appeal to them on shared principles: a focus on strong family values, the importance of marriage, and professional success.
Getting the politics right on this will determine whether the Republican Party is a debating society or a governing party in the decades to come.
If conservatives in the House don’t like what bipartisan groups in each chamber are proposing, it is incumbent upon them to come up with an alternative comprehensive plan. On this issue, a piecemeal approach won’t work. Border enforcement is a top priority and a solution must minimize any incentive for future illegal immigration, but there are 11 million illegal aliens already living here, and to leave the question of what to do about their status unresolved is an abdication of duty.
As conservative lawmakers ponder their strategy, they should remember the lesson of the fiscal cliff deal. By walking away from House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal, Republicans ultimately had to swallow a plan that raised taxes on more people. Given immigration reform’s potential to have long-lasting electoral effects, the GOP needs all of its elected leaders engaged.
Leaving immigration unaddressed before the 2014 midterm elections will have harmful effects for those elected leaders and Republican candidates for decades to come. That sort of existential crisis should persuade members to think about the future of the nation and their party’s ability to influence the debate in it, rather than just their primary. My guess is that many conservative lawmakers in Congress aren’t as hostile in their hearts to a deal as their mouths may make them sound.
Republicans have to decide whether they want to solve this problem in a way that may actually help them politically or continue to stake out ground that is crumbling beneath their feet. Their heads and hearts should tell them which is the better option.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).