Republicans have come a long way since George W. Bush's truly admirable push for comprehensive immigration reform.
It seems like a distant memory, but in 2005 many Republicans unabashedly championed the Kennedy-McCain approach to immigration reform. Things have changed. Take Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). Graham and McCain went from demonizing opponents of reform as intolerant to completely rejecting both comprehensive immigration reform and massively popular measures like the DREAM Act. The most maddening thing about this shift is that now Republicans are attempting to deny culpability for our failure to address our immigration woes.
Over the past decade, comprehensive immigration reform ("immigration reform") legislation has typically involved a combination of beefed-up enforcement mechanisms and either a temporary guest worker program or a "path to citizenship." Legalization typically excludes criminals and rewards various forms of assimilation and public service. It also often deals with skilled-labor (H1B visas). This approach balances the law and order demands of conservatives with liberals' interest in compassion and inclusion. It balances businesses' need for predictable cheap labor with labor advocates' interest in a more functional and fair labor market.
Why do politicians regularly trot out these immigration reform bills? Why did Reagan sign a massive amnesty in 1986? Immigration reform initiatives are a recognition of a massive failure in public policy. It's time to face the facts: America stinks at keeping undocumented people out of the country. But reform efforts are also a recognition of reality. It is difficult to police our borders, costly to deport millions, and impractical (and harmful) to deputize local officials as immigration officers. Immigration reform might be accurately described as the best of many bad options.
Because reform initiatives inherently recognize American policy failure, proponents of reform start out in a defensive posture. After all, the people who mindlessly shout "lawbreakers!" actually have a fairly valid point! Reform advocates must acknowledge a wrong and then make a nuanced case, packing their bills full of aggressive (and sometimes over-the-top) enforcement mechanisms. Each reform effort is an implicit admission that the United States will continue to offer de-facto amnesty every generation. The difficult climate and ready-made attacks mean that comprehensive immigration reform will never pass without the political cover of bipartisan support. And that's why Republicans' recent rejection of even the mildest reform efforts has been so damaging to the overall reform effort. But it wasn't always that way....
Take George W. Bush. While some claim that the immigration push was part of Karl Rove's "brilliant" strategy for capturing a permanent Republican majority, the truth is that President Bush supported immigration reform, both as a compassionate Christian and a person attuned to the needs of businesses (see: his lax enforcement efforts).
Bush's support was not a cynical gambit. But we can say the same thing about Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama. Liberals don't need to be goaded into supporting immigration reform. It's a common sense part of our agenda. We support immigration reform because, while we acknowledge the unfairness of granting amnesty, we have a strong interest in providing basic dignity and recognition to people who want to call America their home.
With a bipartisan cadre of supporters in Congress ready to move bills, Bush's 2005/2006 reform push looked like a great move until an intense national backlash among conservative Republicans and even some Blue Dog Democrats. The level of anger and vitriol was shocking. Hate group recruitment skyrocketed and the public climate turned nasty. The fierce reaction among conservatives surprised Bush and even many clueless Fox News analysts. If Bush really was trying to create a permanent GOP majority, his plan backfired spectacularly. Instead of bolstering the GOP brand with Hispanic voters, he "brought out the crazies," exposing Hispanic voters to the raw rage of the GOP base. State, local, and federal Republicans became increasingly belligerent toward undocumented workers, including pushing (and passing) laws that prioritized the capture of illegal immigrants over the prevention of rape. Clearly shaken, Congress passed measures that boosted enforcement in the hope that this would pave the way for later legalization efforts, but it did not. Instead, opposition to immigration reform became a litmus test in Republican primaries.
It's tough to point to an exact moment when the anti-reform faction took over the Republican Party, but I'd have to say that it was the GOP primary for the Nebraska's 2006 gubernatorial election. The race pitted Rep. Tom Osborne against businessman Dave Heineman. As the former head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Osborne was (and still is!) the most popular person in Nebraska. He's a man known for integrity and thoughtfulness. As a Christian, Osborne couldn't bring himself to support an anti-illegal immigration petition, nor would he commit to banning in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants. Because of these positions, Osborne, the most popular Nebraskan alive, lost narrowly to Heineman in the primary. For those of you who aren't football fans or aren't unfamiliar with the singular role the sport plays in Nebraska, let me spell it out for you: this was an earth-shattering affirmation of the primacy of Republicans' opposition to any efforts to acknowledge the humanity of illegal immigrants.
Conservatives' anger sent out a shock-wave that put both Republicans and Democrats in conservative districts on notice.
Since the 2005 reform effort, Democrats in Congress have attempted to advance bills reforming immigration, and these bills have made little headway. Previous reform supporters like Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Sam Brownback (retired in 2010), Gregg (Retired in 2010), Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Bennett consistently refuse to allow debate on immigration reform and are often openly and publicly hostile to reform efforts. One elderly senator summed up the mood in 2010 when he said, "Complete the danged fence."
Even senators like Snowe, Collins, and Lugar, who had previously supported reform without reservations, rejected the DREAM Act, the most uncontroversial immigration bill imaginable, fearing primaries. Since then, Lugar has been defeated in a primary and Snowe retired, citing the hyper-partisan demands put on her by her party leadership.
But despite all of this —despite the fact that the GOP viciously demonizes anyone who dares support even the most tepid of immigration reform measures and despite the fact that Obama has presided over the toughest immigration enforcement policy in our nation's history (in an effort to appeal to conservatives who wanted a balanced approach between enforcement and legalization) — Republicans are now blaming Obama for the inaction on reform.
Republicans' most superficially appealing claim is that Obama didn't "prioritize immigration reform." They laughably claim that if the administration engaged in an aggressive PR effort to pass reform that this would convince Republicans to drop their nearly unanimous uncompromising opposition. While it is surely flattering for Obama to hear that his public endorsement would sway Republicans, it seems like a purposefully obtuse reading of today's legislative stalemate.
Since 2009, the GOP establishment, the grassroots, and nearly all GOP-elected leaders have rejected immigration reform, cozied up to anti-immigrant hate-groups, and refused to work with Democrats in Congress on reform efforts. If Republicans in Congress truly believe that Obama's explicit endorsement would have saved them from primaries, moved the ball forward, or helped pass reform, then they haven't been paying attention. After all, when Obama supports Republican ideas, they suddenly become socialist plots against America. Their best path forward was to work with congressional Democrats who were pushing bills through Congress, and the reason why that didn't happen is because (a) they wisely calculated that it was in their best interests to deny Obama a legislative victory and (b) they feared a primary challenge.
For the last four years, Republicans proudly ran against immigration reform and demonized a powerless and vulnerable class of people.
It would be refreshing if Republicans would simply stick with their belligerent anti-reform position and test its popularity in the general election, instead of blaming Obama or trotting out spokesmen from AstroTurf groups.