The House GOP’s Big Immigration Fail

Despite a string of embarrassing and disheartening mistakes, the Obama administration does not have to worry about a suddenly resurgent Republican Party. The GOP has its hands full. Even with this year’s primary season behind them, sharp divides between insurgents and establishment remain. The door is sliding closed on replacing Obamacare, and Republicans won’t get another shot at running our foreign policy until at least 2017. Just because the president has lost the initiative does not mean the GOP has regained it.

Now, Republicans are held captive by narratives, not just events. And the main narrative staring them down for the rest of Obama’s term is “obstructionism.”

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It’s an old story, but this time it has some bite, because now, Republicans are obstructing themselves. What’s more, they’re doing it on what leading political and media figures want to be the next big marquee issue for sweeping, top-down reform.

A critical mass of influential figures now demands the GOP act on immigration, one way or the other. And that means the House GOP.

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House Speaker John Boehner has stalled on immigration with great vigor. This year, however, something’s got to give. In the Senate, big-time personal politics forged a team of Republican egos that can’t tolerate playing second fiddle to mere Representatives. They know that if there’s no vote by August, immigration is dead for the year—and the Senate will have to pass it again next year if it’s ever to return. The pressure is on from the left, as well. Democrats have given activist groups their marching orders: “Train all your fire on House Republicans from now until August,” as Politico sums them up.

As part of the Democrats’ offensive, the Center for American Progress has dutifully whipped up a survey showing that almost half of Latino respondents would blame the GOP for Congressional inaction on immigration, while just 16 percent would blame Democrats.

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Those sorts of numbers are just the start of the House’s troubles, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor knows all too well. This election year, he was caught in a withering crossfire of immigration criticism from right and left alike—slammed for being pro-amnesty on the one hand and anti-reform on the other.

The justifiable concern this spectacle raises is that Republicans stand to lose no matter what they do. That same CAP poll puts a spotlight on the pitfalls: 45 percent of respondents said they’d be more “favorable” toward Republicans in general, and 61 percent more “open” to their ideas, if only the House GOP would “support immigration reform.”

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Like many polls, CAP’s was carefully tailored to encourage the results desired. But the dilemma for Republicans is clear enough. Chasing after mere favorability and openness is an unbecoming act of desperation. The nightmare scenario for the GOP is a marginally more GOP-friendly Hispanic population that still breaks strongly Democratic, cycle after cycle. And there’s just no indication that, politically speaking, the Senate approach to reform will yield anything but that.

What House Republicans need, but do not have, is a cohesive approach to immigration that can be stacked up against the Senate’s. It’s got to be an approach that doesn’t go full remember-the-Alamo, like the grassroots’ preferred approach, or full dollar-sign-eyes, like the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party. But it’s also got to avoid the cloying, off-putting sentimentalism of the RINO wing that sees government as a salvific, nationalistic Santa Claus, bestowing the blessings of full American-ness on a people stuck in the “shadows.”

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Now would seem like a strange time for a dispassionate, de-politicized immigration solution to emerge from the House. But there’s one waiting to be cobbled together, if only Boehner and company would think it through.

It would take shape in accordance with a three-step acknowledgement of the basic realities we confront on the issue. First, the “illegal immigration crisis” is over. Whether we keep border security about where it is or whether we ramp it up dramatically, there just isn’t going to be the kind of massive influx that got us where we are today. A future economic boom might bump up the numbers, but right now they’re around net zero—a figure that has more to do with Mexicans and Mexico than it does with the U.S. economy.

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That means, second, that we’re dealing with a finite, specific population of undocumented immigrants. They’re not going to clone themselves. Like all of us, they’re going to get old, and they’re eventually going to die. The political and legal problem posed by “illegal immigration today” is only going to get smaller over time. In fact, as we all know, the American-born children of those undocumented immigrants are all going to be citizens from day one.

And third of all, and in sum, the “immigration problem” boils down to a far more specific and narrow situation than so many of us have allowed ourselves to think. Although the Obama administration has done an energetic job of deporting some people, there just isn’t a strong enough consensus to kick out the finite population of undocumented. On the other hand, although a blanket amnesty is a far more elegant, enforceable, and principled policy than a patchwork of half-measures that plays favorites on the basis of ethnicity or education policy, there just isn’t a strong enough consensus to deliver that outcome, either.

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So one thing we know for sure is that we’re not going to give the boot or give amnesty to the finite, specific population of undocumented immigrants who crossed the border illegally. And another thing we know is that birthright citizenship means we don’t have to worry about their kids’ status.

Critics of immigration reform harbor one of two justified fears. Some critics worry that reform would be like an on/off switch—suddenly and irreversibly changing America forever. Others worry that reform would be the opposite—a neverending morass of bureaucracy, legalese, and special status, hardwiring yet more regulatory complexity and intrusive government into everything we do.

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By focusing solely on the actual humans whose legal status needs to be finalized, however, we can act swiftly, safe in the knowledge that a policy tailored to them won’t transform America or make implementation a permanent process.

Give the undocumented some documentation, but not citizenship. Let them pay some back taxes. Let them learn English if they like. And let their American-born children be American citizens. 

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Is that a “perfect” approach? Is it “comprehensive?” More importantly, do we need to care? It sidesteps most of our political and culture-war drama, attending to our present needs in a way that wins us back the most valuable commodity of all in a democracy: time to think and talk in relative peace and quiet.

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