Immigration Reform: Republicans Face a Damned if You Do Damned if You Don't Decision

In Mexico, there is a bit of doggerel called Herod's Law, referring to situations in which one is either screwed or f...ried. With immigration reform, the GOP seems poised to lose: along one axis, Republicans in Congress can either defy their base and support the bill, or ignore the warnings of their leaders and fight amnesty. Republicans also face the difficult choice of angering either the business interests that underwrite their party, or alienating their usually reliable socially conservative voters.

For Democrats immigration reform embodies a win-win situation. If the bill is passed, President Obama will have fulfilled one of his key campaign promises and his party will have sealed an alliance with Hispanic voters. If it fails to pass, Republicans will be to blame, imposing a demographic slope in their road to the White House. At stake are the hearts and minds (and potentially 24 million votes) of 53 million Hispanics.

For Republicans, the essential problem is one of long-term prospects versus short-term incentives. In the long-term, the GOP desperately needs to begin attracting a larger share of the fastest-growing demographic group. Hispanics are America's youngest major racial group at a time when the Republicans' principal constituency, Whites, are not only becoming a smaller proportion of the population, but are also aging quickly.

However, short-term incentives cannot be disregarded. Due to gerrymandering, Republican Congressmen increasingly represent politically and ethnically homogeneous districts: most voted decisively for Mr. Romney, and more than half of House Republicans represent a population that is less than 10 percent Hispanic. Meanwhile, the most engaged faction of the GOP, the Tea Party, has been the most outspoken, renouncing some of their erstwhile darlings, like Senator Rubio, who now favor reform and labelling them as RINOS (Republicans In Name Only). Legislators' fear is more from a primary challenge than an election, and so have little personal incentive to support the bill.

The strains on the Party are apparent in the attempts to ease cultural fears of critics by emphasising border security over a path to citizenship. The Senate deal that would add 20,000 Border Patrol Agents and 700 miles of fencing secured 14 Republican votes, but at a cost of $30 billion per year it destroys any semblance of the fiscal discipline they have thus far declared paramount. One of the complaints is that reform will simply add more democratic voters, but Republican opponents of immigration should not so easily give up on Hispanics. A recent Latino Decisions poll revealed that approximately 45 percent of Hispanic voters would be more likely to support a Republican candidate who played a leading role in passing immigration reform. Republicans should realise Democrats have not efficiently targeted and won this demographic. Hispanics have fled to liberals because conservatives have been quite competent at repelling them. Take the case of California, a competitive state until 1994, when Governor Pete Wilson embraced Proposition 187 denying basic services to undocumented immigrants. Since then the Golden State has gone blue.

There are those that, if mobilised, can bridge Republican leadership and base; business and socially conservative voters. An increasing number of conservative evangelicals support comprehensive immigration reform in a context of morality. There are also conservative pundits such as Michael Gerson and David Brooks that favor reform and can cut across the different sectors.

Republicans should understand that the bill is due, and they will not escape from the long arm of Herod's Law until they pay a fine. They can either decide to pay now, and pass immigration reform, or pay much more later.