For Republicans, Immigration Reform Is Unavoidable

| Mon Feb. 3, 2014 3:00 PM EST

Should Republicans support immigration reform this year? From a purely political perspective, there are good reasons not to:

  • It would anger the conservative base, which is dead set against any kind of comprehensive immigration reform that allows undocumented workers to stay in the country legally (i.e., a "path to citizenship" or a path to legal residence of some kind).
  • Even outside the tea party base, most Republicans oppose immigration reform.
  • It almost certainly wouldn't help Republicans in this year's midterm elections. It might even hurt them.

What about the other side? In my view, there's really only one good reason for the Republican leadership to forge ahead despite all this:

  • In the long term, it would be good for the party. Opposition to immigration reform is a festering sore that prevents the GOP from appealing to the fast-growing Hispanic population, something that they'll have to address eventually.

In the simplest sense, then, this is an issue of timing. At some point, Republicans will have to bite the bullet and do this. They just can't keep losing the Hispanic vote 70-30 and expect to ever win the presidency again. It's a simple question of brute numbers. The question is how long they can hold out.

My own guess is that now is just about as good as it's going to get for Republicans. With a House majority, they have a fair amount of leverage to get the kind of bill they can live with. In fact, if they play their cards right, they might end up with a bill that fractures Democrats even more than Republicans. But what if they wait? Passing a bill is hopeless in 2015, with primary season for the presidential election so close. It's possible that Republicans will be better off in 2017, but that's a long shot. Democrats are certain to do well in that year's Senate races, and are probably modest favorites to win the presidency again. Republicans would have less leverage than ever if that happens.

And even if the long shot pays off, what good would it do them? Immigration reform of the kind that would pass muster with the tea party base wouldn't do the GOP any good. In fact, it would probably give Democrats an opening to get Hispanic voters even more riled up. What Republicans desperately need is a bill that (a) is liberal enough to satisfy the Hispanic community, but (b) can be blamed on Democrats and a few turncoat moderate Republicans in November.

I'm not optimistic about getting a decent bill passed this year, but what optimism I do have is based on this simple-minded analysis. If Republicans are smart, they'll get this monkey off their backs now, when it won't do them too much harm in the midterms but will give them time to start mending fences with Hispanics in time for 2016. Unfortunately, smart is in short supply these days.