Here’s How Congress Can Undo the GOP’s Immigration Bind

Executive Director

May 8, 2015

Long gone are the days of “self-deportation.” Republicans have a golden opportunity to get immigration policy right and reap the rewards in 2016.

That’s because conservative voters, and a growing number of conservative candidates, want more than silence. With dependably conservative voters calling for a better immigration process, candidates see the opening to compete for Hispanic votes.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have been very clear that they support a way for undocumented immigrants to earn legalization, and Rubio still sees eventual citizenship as part of the picture. That’s a major step forward from the last GOP nominee’s solution: Make life so difficult that immigrants without authorization would “self-deport.” And it has helped push the immigration conversation in a constructive direction.

But to seize this opportunity, Republican candidates will need to change the face of their party’s immigration conversation. Their predicament stems from the leaders of the GOP’s immigration conversation: members of Congress such as Congressman Steve King of Iowa and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

The kind of hyperbole that defines their immigration message helped doom the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill in 2013. That bill would have secured the border; fixed the legal immigration system to the benefit of American businesses; provided a tough, earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; and made any thought of executive intervention moot.

The bill had the votes of 14 Republican senators and the blessing of a large coalition of faith, law enforcement and business allies.

We all know what happened next: Once the bill got to the House of Representatives, Congressman King and other hard-liners, with more than a little encouragement from Sen. Sessions, made it their mission to defeat it — thereby handicapping GOP presidential candidates by association.

It’s no wonder Hillary Clinton made a bold statement on immigration Tuesday in Nevada. She recognizes the contrasting tones of Republicans’ immigration messages — and the more constructive one could threaten a Democrat’s ability to capitalize politically on our broken immigration system.

Republicans should call Democrats’ bluff and force them to the table by putting forward constructive ideas in Congress.

Poll after poll shows that even among conservative voters in early primary states, immigration is a winner. Conservative leaders in the faith, law enforcement and business communities have actively pushed for immigration reform over the last few years. The sky will not fall. Poll numbers among minority voters will rise.

Bush and Rubio are leading the way toward the constructive immigration conversation their primary voters want. But as long as King and Sessions are calling the shots in Congress, it may not be enough.

Why let them snuff out such an opportunity?