Immigration Reform 2013: As Obama Pushes For Reform, Colin Powell Says the GOP Has a Race Problem


Colin Powell took to the airwaves on Meet the Press Sunday to criticize the Republican Party for its "dark vein of intolerance" and the party's use of racial code words to oppose the president. Coincidentally, the statement comes at the same time that the White House is making a serious move to appeal to Latino voters via immigration reform.

"There's also a dark – a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? I mean that by that that they still sort of look down on minorities," Powell said. "When I see a former governor [Sarah Palin] say that the President is 'shuckin' and 'jivin,' that's racial era slave term. Another former governor [John Sununu] after the president's first debate where he didn't do very well, says that the president was lazy … now it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to blacks, the second word is shiftless and then there's a third word that goes along with that

Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the party?” he asked.

Powell's comments come right on the heels of news that President Obama plans to quickly push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress in the coming months, including a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

The White House will argue that the reform package is not an "amnesty," because they will include specific provisions to impose fines, require payment of back taxes, and other hurdles for undocumented immigrants who would gain legal status under the program. It would also implement mandatory and nationwide verification of citizenship status, add visas to relieve backlogs, allow highly skilled immigrants to stay and work in the U.S., and create a guest-worker program to allow low-skilled immigrants to work in the future.

In other words, this sounds a lot like a proposal the non-nativist wing of the GOP would have supported before the late-2000s swing to the right. It specifically works to protect American jobs by preventing corporations from lowballing wages by hiring non-citizens, and ensure that the government is paid back at least a significant portion of owed taxes.

While senators from both parties participating in initial talks were apparently "pleasantly surprised" by the amount of common ground the congressmen discovered and by how quickly talks were progressing, a large faction of the GOP remains intransigent on the issue.

Many Republicans will doubtless oppose the bill on the bedrock principle of disagreeing with the White House on everything. And the hard right, anti-illegal-immigrant faction of the House GOP will attack it as amnesty, regardless of the bill's contents. That will doubtlessly partially mar the efforts of many moderate Republicans to win back some measure of minority support by working with the president to produce a reform bill.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) said he remained in opposition to "amnesty of any kind" and accused the Obama administration of being lax on enforcement. In November, after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced he was prepared to talk about "comprehensive immigration reform," a pro-enforcement political action committee announced its intention to fund a primary challenge from the right.

Conservatives that remain opposed to any reevaluation of immigration reform are playing a dangerous game. Latinos cast 71% of their votes in favor of Obama in the last election. Many cited Republicans' harsh tone and punitive policies against undocumented immigrants as reasons they could not support GOP candidate Mitt Romney. Not a long stretch to compare this to Powell's view of the Republican Party as "looking down" on minorities.

And the immigration issue is important – but as Powell highlights, it is just one part, albeit a major one, of a larger issue the GOP has with minority voters: their inability to treat them with the respect and tolerance they grant to the white population. As he says, "it has to take a look at those less unfortunate than us."

"It is not just about immigration. It is about belonging. It is about respect. It is about being part of the American family," Alex Massie observed in November. "… The GOP doesn't understand this. Remember the brouhaha over Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court? Conservative snake-oil salesmen rushed to portray her as an "affirmative action" pick who was, anyway, some kind of racist…"

Bills like Arizona's S.B. 1070, regardless of their dubious merits, have convinced Latino voters that the GOP is not concerned with the well-being of their community. Tea Party Republicans have dominated the GOP's messaging, and their message often looks ugly. With the country getting more diverse, and the GOP getting more conservative, it is not hard to see why they keep on doing badly in national elections.

Blame this on a severe lack of foresight by the Republican leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell infamously said in 2010 that the number one priority of congressional Republicans was to make Obama a one-term president. Not unemployment. Not fixing the economy. Not fixing our broken immigration system, and certainly not paying attention to spiraling income inequality. All of these issues disproportionately affect non-white Americans.

The Republican Party thought minority voters were not going to turn out in 2012. They were wrong, and Obama won a staggering percentage of that vote.

While many Republicans appear, to borrow the president's parlance, to be "evolving" on the issue of immigration, it is going to take more than a token reversal on immigration reform to remain relevant in the face of changing demographics.

If the GOP wants to reclaim ownership as the party of the American Dream – work hard, play by the rules, and you'll be successful – it needs to realize that fairness towards immigrants is part and parcel of the liberty narrative, and it needs to realize that immigration reform is not enough. Reform requires a wholesale reevaluation of how their platform comes across to minority voters. It requires a reevaluation of whether they should continue to tolerate the ugly language espoused by the hard-right faction of the party. It requires examining whether their economic policies are hurting minorities. If they cannot bring themselves to support a fairer system that allows immigrants and minorities to succeed, they will discredit their own narrative. It will not matter whether some moderates work with the White House.

Unfortunately for them, they already appear to be being outmaneuvered by Democrats and the White House.