The sudden embrace by high-profile Republicans of immigration reform, including (shockingly) the potential for amnesty for more than 10 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows of US society, hints at concerns so deep that Republicans may be willing to risk an ideological civil war that could split the party.
Suggestions by top Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, that the GOP should not cede meaningful immigration reform to the Democrats cuts deeply into long-time Republican class and identity politics that’s focused in the past few years on America’s illegal immigrant subculture.
Deep-seated anger over illegal immigration is partly economic, to be sure. But it also represents a decades-long political strategy by Republicans of piquing racial and class resentments among middle-class whites, many who chafe at seeing other able-bodied Americans and non-Americans getting handouts paid for by hardworking taxpayers.
But as millions of potential white Romney voters stayed home on Election Day, possibly enough to give Obama the win, the long-time racialized strategy is now coming under serious question as a successful political framework, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) noting that the party is no longer generating enough “angry white guys” to win elections.
The focus on the Hispanic vote opens the door for a new generation of Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to put their stamp on the party. But it also augurs debate that will play out as early as next week over whether the GOP needs to develop a more open-arms strategy at the risk of offending a core of rural, religious whites, who in many states control the party’s primary system.
“Republicans need to modify their stance on immigration, but their deeper need is more profound: a way to sell limited-government conservatism that has a broader appeal than sublimated white Christian identity politics,” writes Jonathan Chait, in New York Magazine this week.
The stakes, meanwhile, are as huge as the ideological divide over immigration is deep. “A GOP civil war could well end in the creation of a third party,” suggests Brigitte Nacos, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.
The new reality for many Republicans became painfully evident on Election Day: That it may no longer be feasible to in essence lock out a portion of the population whose conservative views on religion and work are a natural fit with the GOP, and who have shown willingness to vote for Republicans in the past. George W. Bush, who hailed from Texas and courted Hispanics, received 44 percent of their vote in 2004 while Mitt Romney drew only 27 percent.
Some commentators argue the GOP can cede the amnesty issue and still remain united as a party – especially if amnesty is combined with strong border control policy.
“There’s no need for radical change,” wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “The other party thinks it owns the demographic future – counter that in one stroke by fixing the Latino problem. Do not, however, abandon the party’s philosophical anchor.”
But for many, including many of those in the GOP’s powerful tea party wing, acquiescing to amnesty would be a bridge too far, especially after so much political capital has been spent in fomenting anger and concern over illegal immigration and the porous southern border – and as over 20 million Americans are currently unemployed or underemployed.
Most immediately, the debate is around whether major immigration reform, including becoming the party of amnesty, will even work, or whether most Hispanics have already become dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. The argument is that Republican can’t compete with “free stuff” that minorities, including illegal immigrants, have come to expect from Democrats.
“I think pandering is the worst way to respond, it'd be a huge mistake and amnesty is a terrible decision, a terrible bill,” Bay Buchanan, a Romney surrogate and the sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, told The Hill. “If leadership attempts to move in this direction there will be an internal battle on this, it'll be very vocal and it'll be very national.”
While Mitt Romney created outreach to Hispanics, he suggested no bold legislative initiatives, leaving Obama an opening to enact the so-called “Dream Act Lite” program by executive order. It allows young illegal immigrants with a record of achievement to stay in the country without fear of deportation.
Going over the election post-mortem, chastened conservatives saw that Romney likely missed a major opportunity with the Hispanic vote, suggesting that the candidate’s simple economic message and appeal to traditional values wasn’t enough to overcome suspicions wrought by Republican state legislatures – especially in the South and West – that have recently enacted their own immigration control laws, ostensibly intended to chase illegal immigrants out of those states.
As a broader bid for electoral gains, however, a strategy with xenophobia at its roots showed its limits on Tuesday.
“I think you control the border first," said Fox News host Sean Hannity. "You create a pathway for those people that are here – you don’t say ‘you’ve got to go home.’ And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved."