On November 7, 2012, the idea of Republicans embracing comprehensive immigration reform was a no-brainer. That was the day after Mitt Romney got hammered by Hispanic voters who rejected his candidacy for president by a 44 point margin.
GOP leaders stunned by the major electoral smackdown couldn’t get to fixing the immigration system fast enough. “While I believe it’s important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws,” Speaker John Boehner said the next day, “I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”
Fast forward to last night in Cleveland.
“We need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly,” Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump declared to resounding applause. Sadly, and dangerously for the GOP, that’s what has become of the party's official platform on immigration.
There were 10 Republican hopefuls on stage last night. Not one took issue with Trump’s ludicrous contention that the immigration problems in the United States can be solved by building a wall. Not one pointed out that illegal immigration has fallen to its lowest levels in 20 years and that the nation’s undocumented population has dropped by 1 million since 2007. And, sadly, not one offered a detailed, thoughtful policy proposal in response to Trump’s doubling down on his hateful message about Mexican immigrants.
To the contrary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is by many considered a thoughtful, moderate presidential contender, pandered to Trump on immigration, declaring that he “is touching a nerve because people want the wall to be built. They want to see an end to illegal immigration. They want to see it, and we all do. But we all have different ways of getting there. And you're going to hear from all of us tonight about what our ideas are.”
To be fair, some Republican candidates alluded to fixing the immigration system, but only after “securing the border” -- which has become more nuanced politician-speak for “we’ll never do immigration reform because we can always claim the border is not secure enough.” Jeb Bush, who’s gone further than any of his GOP rivals in suggesting he’d support comprehensive immigration reform, reiterated his support for some sort of “earned legal status” for undocumented immigrants, but was disappointingly short on specifics.
Unfortunately, despite Kasich’s promise earlier in the evening, none of the GOP candidates outlined serious proposals to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.
Nor is the GOP’s failure on immigration confined to the presidential candidates. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared yesterday that there would be no immigration reform this year, claiming that “the atmosphere for dealing with that issue in the wake of” President Obama’s executive actions on deportations “is not appropriate" -- a position that makes little sense given that Obama's executive immigration actions have been enjoined by a federal judge at the request of GOP governors and attorneys general.
The refusal to embrace or even talk about comprehensive immigration reform demonstrates a major disconnect with Republican constituents across the country. Despite the hard-line presidential campaign rhetoric, recent polling shows the GOP candidates are at odds with the majority of their voters. Recent polling has found 53% to 55% of Republican voters favor some sort of path to earned legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. That means that most Republicans are ultimately pragmatic; they want immigration policy solutions, not pandering to the extremists in the party.
The takeaway is clear: When it comes to immigration, the GOP candidates didn’t do the party’s eventual nominee any favors last night. It’s one thing to veer to the right during a Republican presidential primary to capture the base of the party. But the GOP presidential hopefuls -- including real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump -- would be wise to heed the words of Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, who recently cautioned the GOP not to repeat her former boss’s mistake on immigration. Romney’s championing of the mean-spirited, inhumane and unworkable policy of “self-deportation” may have helped earn him the support of party extremists, but it drove him over the cliff in the general election.
David Leopold practices immigration law in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.