IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Immigration reformers have a plan to win over House Republicans

Things are not looking good for immigration reform in the House.
Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica takes an oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Vishaun Lawrence of Jamaica takes an oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

Things are not looking good for immigration reform in the House.

Speaker John Boehner has committed himself to bringing the majority of his party along on any immigration legislation–a feat even the more moderate Senate couldn’t match for their bill. On Tuesday, two influential conservative editors, the National Review’s Rich Lowry and the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, urged Boehner to drop the immigration issue entirely in a joint op-ed so the party can focus on courting voters outside the Latino community instead. The speaker will meet with his caucus on Wednesday to work out their immigration plan.

Against this backdrop, pro-reform groups are preparing a major lobbying effort to identify persuadable Republicans and push them to support a comprehensive bill resembling the Senate’s. They’ll have an array of powerful interests helping them, from Silicon Valley to Big Agriculture to national GOP strategists. George W. Bush might even get involved: he's speaking at a naturalization ceremony on Wednesday and recently offered up some kind words for reform. The question is whether, even with all their resources, the House GOP of 2013 are too insulated from the outside political world to be reached.

The first step is identifying their targets. Immigration reform groups are circulating a memo this week listing 99 potential “yes” votes based on a variety of factors. Among them: Republicans who have a significant Latino and Asian population in their district, Republicans with large agricultural or high-tech interests in their district (two industries strongly supporting reform), and Republicans who’ve publicly expressed an interest in addressing the issue.

The top targets are Republicans who could potentially be threatened by a Democratic challenger if they buck their district on the issue. David Damore, an analyst with pollster Latino Decisions, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that reformers were focusing on 14 “tier 1” members who face large Latino constituencies and competitive elections, and an additional 10 “tier 2” and 20 “tier 3” members whose Latino populations are at least potentially an influence. The same day, Public Policy Polling released surveys showing strong support for immigration reform in several of the “tier 1” members’ districts, many of whom are in Western states. Examples include Joe Heck of Nevada, Gary Miller and Jeff Denham of California, and Mike Coffman of Colorado. National Democrats have already launched an ad campaign to pressure most of the “tier 1” crowd on the issue.

"If they decide wrong, they will ensure that this will carry on to the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential elections,” Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the SEIU, said on the call.

But even the liberal estimate of 99 “gettable” GOP votes is short of the 117 Republicans Boehner says he needs to move forward on legislation. That’s a problem.

The biggest obstacle may be that for most Republican House members, Latino and Asian voters just aren’t a huge threat even as their influence grows nationally every presidential election.

Tom Wong, a professor at UC-San Diego, has been crunching the numbers for pro-immigration groups using a mathematical algorithm to predict House members’ vote based on their past votes and their districts’ foreign-born population, partisanship, and economic conditions. The results aren’t great: in May, he calculated there were only 195 solid “yes” votes in all of Congress for a comprehensive immigration bill and 227 members who “lean no.”

According to Wong, one of the biggest reasons for the lack of “yes” votes is the sheer number of GOP members who lack a large minority constituency. Close to 200 Republican districts are at least 80% white by his count, a number he found “staggering.”

“On the Senate level, almost all states are experiencing increased immigration and increased diversity,” he told msnbc. “But when we shift to the district level, the changes are spread unevenly.”

Wong says that it’s not all bad news. Many members are heavily influenced by partisanship, a factor that could work towards passage of a bill if House GOP leaders ultimately decide to endorse a deal at some point.

To court the many Republicans who don’t have to worry about a backlash from immigrant voters, reformers are counting on a long list of allies with deep roots in conservative circles. The Chamber of Commerce and various other business groups typically aligned with the right are backing the bill. Catholic, Evangelical, and Mormon groups are trying to gather support among the social conservatives. And some top Republican Super PACs are getting involved, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.

“It’s probably best described as an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy,” Marshall Fitz, Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, told msnbc.

Already many of the above groups are running advertising or education campaigns designed to make Republican members more comfortable voting “yes” on reform. They have a lot more resources at their disposal than their opponents. There are few major interest groups outside of anti-immigration organizations and conservative leaders who are trying to kill the bill.

But that doesn’t mean the anti-immigration forces don’t have power to push back themselves. Republicans in safe seats are a lot more likely to face a serious challenge from a primary opponent on the right then a pro-immigration Democrat. Conservative media figures also have an outsized influence on the base and many of them are now whipping votes against reform. While some air cover from big business might help, pro-reform interests have been hesitant to threaten “no” votes with primary challengers themselves. It may be a necessary step to pass a bill. In Arizona, business and religious leaders stopped an anti-immigration fever in the state legislature when they successfully ran a moderate Republican candidate against hardline senate president Russell Pearce.

“Right now, the fear all comes from the other side,” Fitz told msnbc. “Yes, there’s encouragement and urging based on legitimate stakeholder and national interests from the other side. But without that kind of looming threat, that’s the challenge we're faced with.”