Avoiding GOP Immigration Reform Self-Sabotage, Pt. 8: The Gateway Issue Redux

By Stanley Renshon on June 10, 2014

There may be some truth to Jeb Bush's view that immigration is a "gateway issue for Hispanics". He is quoted as saying, "If you can get past that, then you have to make a case on a broader set of issues." This point was seconded in a Sunday news show appearance by Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, "The problem for Republicans is that immigration reform is a gateway issue and basically says you have to do something about that in order for those voters to listen to you on all those other issues."

The question is: What is that "something" you "have to do"?

For some Republicans, "something" appears anything to forestall the threat of the president acting unilaterally again. Of course the worry that the president "will do it alone" is a little anticlimactic given what he has already done. And more unilateral action carries its own grave political risks for the president.

For others, like GOP Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a possible immigration deal would include working, "on the border security bill together, we can work on something like the kids."

In other words, a smaller immigration bargain in which "border security," as yet undefined, would be part of a deal that would offer legalization to DACA recipients.

That's a plausible beginning, but still leaves unaddressed what to do about the other 11 million-plus illegal aliens currently in the country. Such an idea is complicated by the fact that the administration appears to have quietly relaxed the criteria for inclusion in the DACA legalization program. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has charged that officials "have loosened the educational requirements to allow those who are enrolled in an 'alternative program' [without defining what this means] to benefit from the program." And he has also said DACA language would not explicitly require the administration to verify "documentary evidence" that an applicant submits to prove that he or she meets the standards for a stay of deportation.

If that is true, it represents an administrative effort that would erode the legitimate basis for considering relief to those children brought here by their parents. Empathy is one thing; impeding efforts to see if applicants actually qualify undercuts the legitimacy of the whole effort.

And then there is the surge of unaccompanied non-adults currently overwhelming DHS's ability to cope with them. Any effort at an immigration deal must now contend with the consequences of having given the impression that anything short of a serious felony conviction is not grounds for removal.

Republicans of all views have to ask themselves some serious questions in the quiet of their own contemplation:

  • Does "doing something" require Republicans to sign on to the House Democratic version of the 2013 Senate bill?
  • Will Hispanics only listen to Republicans if they grant citizenship to every illegal alien?
  • Does the Republican Party have nothing to say to Hispanics, and others, about the need to support the rule of law, even if some form of legalization is offered?
  • Will the GOP tell potential Hispanic voters that if members of their group continue to come to the county illegally that is alright? Or will the GOP take the position that it will look the other way for Asians, too. After all, they are a fast-growing immigrant group among whom the GOP did not do well in the last presidential election.
  • And how will the Irish or Africans feel about that? Won't they want to be included in the pass from our immigration laws?
  • Most importantly, how will ordinary Americans feel about the GOP taking this stance? Angry is my guess, and rightly so.

The GOP is fast approaching a dramatic historical fork in the road. A principled immigration agreement that includes legalization for those whose record merits it – along with real and effective workplace, border, and internal enforcement – is within its reach if it's not sidetracked by the fool's gold offered by the president and his party, and their Republican enablers.

Next: Avoiding GOP Immigration Reform Self-Sabotage, Pt. 9: The Lure of $$$