Reports from both houses of Congress have raised hopes that a deal is taking shape to overhaul the nation’s broken immigration system. Even more heartening is a blunt new report from the Republican National Committee, warning that if the GOP does not shift its stance to embrace comprehensive immigration reform — which includes eventual citizenship for those currently undocumented — “our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
The congressional deal-making and the warning from GOP leaders are signs of the momentum that has built behind immigration since the drubbing Republicans suffered from Latino voters in November. Still, it would be a mistake to confuse momentum for inevitability, especially on such a volatile issue.
The emerging compromise among immigration negotiators in the Senate — a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Eight — would subject undocumented immigrants to a 10-year waiting period for a green card, followed by a three-year wait to be eligible for citizenship. That timetable is only marginally different from a White House proposal.
In the House, some prominent Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Va., have tried to coax the party’s rank-and-file away from its absolutist opposition to citizenship — or, as the GOP dead-enders prefer to call it, amnesty. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has been meeting with increasing frequency since the election, trying quietly to hammer out principles they can agree upon.
But so many House Republicans have been so entrenched on the issue for so long that the idea of supporting any form of earned citizenship — even one that requires paying a fine and back taxes and going to the back of the line for years — would require crossing an ideological Rubicon.
Take the example of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a conservative Republican who represents a swath of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In hearings in the House last month, Goodlatte suggested he’d prefer a middle ground between what he called the “extremes” of mass deportation and amnesty.
Talk about false equivalents: Mass deportation of 11 million people, two-thirds of them employed, isn’t just an “extreme”; it’s fantasy, as Republican leaders have come to recognize. A pathway to citizenship, on the other hand, is a recognition of the reality that undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been here for 15 years and more, have become part of America’s fabric. A 13-year wait would mean between 300,000 and 500,000 of today’s illegal immigrants would probably die before they become eligible for citizenship, according to Pew Hispanic Center senior demographer Jeffrey S. Passel. Yet even that is too lenient for many House Republicans.
Ultimately it will be up to Republican leaders to sway sufficient numbers of the party’s back-benchers if sweeping immigration reform is to stand a chance. Failure to do so, as the RNC report made plain, is a defeat not only for humane and rational policy but also for the party — one with resounding demographic consequences.