Immigration Reform 2013: Will the GOP Change Its Mind on the DREAM Act?


Before the defeat of Mitt Romney in the presidential election, Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, remarked, “We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." For many decades, Republican presidential candidates have been relying heavily on white voters in order to win the White House. As national demographics change, it will become much more difficult for Republicans to win presidential elections if they continue to adhere to this strategy. Therefore, the new demographic reality will make Republican leaders more willing to work with Barack Obama to reform the country’s immigration policy in his second term.

For almost 50 years, Republican presidential candidates have been winning a majority of the white votes. This strong support has made it more challenging for Democrats to win the presidency over the years. Although Bill Clinton served eight years as president, he failed to win 50% of the votes in both of his elections. In fact, President Obama became the first Democrat to win 50% of the votes since Jimmy Carter won the presidential election in 1976.

The country is in the midst of a great demographic change. With a population of 50 million and growing, Hispanics account for more than 16% of the country’s population. The impact of this change has been seen in dramatic fashion in the last two elections. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the share of the minority voters has grown to 25 and 28% respectively. Hispanics and African Americans make up the bulk of the minority vote. The black votes have been solidly in the Democratic camp since Lyndon Johnson enacted the civil right laws. In the last two presidential elections, Obama won both the African American and Hispanic votes overwhelmingly. If Republicans are not competitive among Hispanic voters, the presidency will be increasingly out of their reach.

Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, once stated that the Republican Party is made up of two groups: priests and mathematicians. He went to say that the mathematicians recognize that there is a need to reach out to Hispanic and other minority voters whereas the priests do not want the party to stray even an inch from its conservative orthodoxies. Unsurprisingly, the priests tend to be staunchly against immigration reform, which would provide a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. 

While he was in power, George W. Bush sought to enact an immigration bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. Bush and many of his senior advisers understand the importance of the Hispanic votes. But Bush did not succeed in his effort because the bill was torpedoed by the priests in the party. 

During his first term, Republicans did not offer Obama any support after he signaled that he wanted to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. Owing to this lack of support, Obama and congressional Democrats tried to pass the Dream Act. The bill would have permitted undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children and who are younger than 30 years old to become resident if they meet certain requirements. Republicans “blocked” even this limited version of the immigration bill.

Following Romney’s loss, the position of the mathematicians within the party has strengthened. Although Romney won 59% of the white votes, he still lost badly. There is some recognition on the part of a growing number of Republicans and conservative activists that the party needs to shed its anti-immigration image. For instance, the Fox News host, Sean Hannity, a strong opponent of immigration reform, came out in support of it after the election. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, an influential conservative, also indicated that he would support amnesty although not citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The shift on illegal immigration by many prominent conservatives bode well for the enactment of immigration reform in the coming year. A significant part of the conservative base might still be opposed to any policy that would allow undocumented immigrants to get the opportunity to eventually become citizens. But the Republican party could not afford to alienate the second largest minority group in the country if they want to win the presidency again. Hence, since they would want to increase their chances of winning future presidential elections, Republican leaders will not dare derail immigration reform, even if they face pressure to do so from a segment of their base.