Immigration Reform 2013: Will Republicans Kill or Embrace the Bill?


Since the 2012 presidential election, immigration reform has become one of the top political issues. As such, it is expected that 2013 will be the year when Congress — after years of dithering — will finally try to come up with a solution that would help solve the immigration problem.

After winning the presidential election, Barack Obama announced that immigration reform would be a top priority. Owing to their dismal showing among Hispanic voters, many Republican leaders realized that they would need to make more outreach to Hispanics. By showing more openness about immigration reform, these GOP leaders hope that they could improve the image of the party among the growing Hispanic electorate. Since the president has made it clear that he intends to make a big push to revamp the immigration system coupled with the openness of many Republican leaders about reform, it appears that there would indeed be a resolution this year. However, although the plan has a bipartisan imprimatur, the bill could still be derailed because of strong opposition by many Republicans in Congress and by a majority of the Republican base.

During his two presidential campaigns, George W. Bush aggressively pursued the Hispanic vote. In his first campaign, Bush won 35% of the Hispanic vote. In 2004, he did even better; Bush received 43% of the votes cast by Hispanics. It was the first time that a Republican presidential candidate won such a high percentage of Hispanic voters.

Instead of building on this tremendous gain, the Republican Party's support among Latinos plummeted in the next two presidential elections. There are two main reasons for this collapse of support. First, conservatives torpedoed President Bush's effort to pass a comprehensive immigration bill during his second term. Second, conservative activists continue to oppose immigration reform. More specifically, many Tea Party members have adamantly opposed any bill that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. To curry favor to those activists, Mitt Romney even advocated "self-deportation" as a remedy for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country while he was campaigning for the presidency. Owing to this hard line position, Romney won only 27% of the Hispanic vote.

The demographic shift that has been occurring in the country along with their poor showing among Hispanic voters has convinced many conservatives to embrace immigration reform. Currently, the Gang of Eight, which is made up of four Democratic Senators and four Republican ones, is working on a comprehensive immigration bill. But while most Democrats support immigration reform, a majority of the conservative base continues to be against it. They especially oppose any bill that would include a path to citizenship, which they derided as amnesty. Hence, the Republican Party is still badly divided over the immigration issue. While many influential conservatives have become more receptive to immigration reform, the rank-and-file of the party is still unwavering in its opposition.

This rift within the party creates a dilemma for many Republican officeholders, particularly for those who plan to run for the presidency in 2016. As illustrated by President Obama's decisive electoral victory, the Republican Party will need to reach out to minority voters in order to have any chance to reclaim the White House in future presidential elections. By working on a reasonable immigration plan, it is likely that Republicans would improve their image among Hispanic voters. But the party's image might be irreparably damaged if the anti-immigration reform caucus inside the party manages to kill the bill.

Because the Republican Party faces two stark choices over the immigration issue, the stake could not be any higher. The GOP could try to placate its base by preventing the bill from becoming law; or they could kill the path to citizenship option, which is one the central features of the bill. But such a move would certainly antagonize Hispanic voters, thereby making it difficult, if not impossible, to reach out to the Latino community. On the other hand, the leaders of the Republican Party could seek to make inroads into the Hispanic community — like Bush did — by ensuring that the comprehensive immigration bill becomes the law of the land. In the months ahead, therefore, the leadership of the Republican Party will need to decide which of those two decisions will be more beneficial to the future of the party.