With GOP heavyweights like John McCain and Marco Rubio calling for comprehensive immigration reform, the Republican Party will struggle to remain united on this politically divisive issue.
Historically, Republicans have been supportive of increasing immigration and providing paths to legal citizenship. In the midst of today's debate, few Republicans seem to acknowledge that the last major overhaul of our immigration system, under conservative hero Ronald Reagan, granted amnesty to all illegal immigrants entering the country before 1982. While Republicans should use this knowledge to avoid conflating anti-immigrant and political values, they should appreciate how different the current political environment is from the one that allowed Reagan to issue such amnesty.
When President Reagan signed his immigration overhaul bill in 1986, he was just two years off of carrying 49 states in a re-election landslide. Reagan had plenty of personal political capital and the Republican Party was also in strong position nationally. Today's Republicans are in a much more tenuous political position. The party is dependent on a fragile coalition of, predominantly white, voters. Many of these voters are low-income "values voters" who are willingly to vote against some economic advantages that might come from Democrats because they see Republicans as better representing their positions on other issues.
Some Republican strategists would argue that the opportunities to reach out to Hispanic populations far outweigh the potential losses of poorer white voters. While this might have some basis in reality, other Republicans are understandably hesitant to take their base for granted while reaching out to a population that has been, at best, fickle in its support for Republican candidates. For individual candidates, there are far more immediately pressing reasons not to buck the status quo. Last year's election included fierce primary battles that were disastrous for the party and for some of its most esteemed members. Republicans fear another salvo from far-right Tea Party groups over immigration and thus will be reluctant to accept any immigration plan that involves offering amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Republicans are not merely motivated by political factors. While some lawmakers may see amnesty as the right decision for the country, others see granting amnesty to those here illegally as a violation of basic fairness. These lawmakers point to the difficulty that highly-skilled workers sometimes encounter when trying to gain legal access to the United States. Lawmakers understandably think that if the government is going to lower the bar for legal entry and residence, high-skilled in-demand workers should be at the front of the line for entry.
Republicans do not have an easy solution to finding a unified stance on immigration reform. Differing political considerations and competing values make finding a course that is viable for all members of the party near impossible. The best solution at this time is for the national party to avoid taking a strong stance on any side of this issue while waiting for the national dialogue to play out further.