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Back to the future: GOP runs to Romney's right on immigration

House Republicans are close to a 360-degree turn on immigration, threatening to end 2014 even further to the right than they started.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Sept. 26, 2013.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Sept. 26, 2013.

Immigration reform is right around the corner, House leaders said at the start of the new Congress last year. And it will all start with legal status for undocumented youngsters, Majority Leader Eric Cantor repeatedly said, because who could oppose letting them stay? 

A whole bunch of House Republicans, apparently. Led by Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, conservatives organized a rapid and successful campaign to block a path to permanent residence for immigrants who served in the military.

"As soon as they raise their hand and say, 'I'm unlawfully present in the United States,' we're not going take your oath into the military, but we're going to take your deposition and we have a bus for you to Tijuana," Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa told Breitbart News. "That's the law."

With that, the House GOP appears ready to complete a 360-degree turn since the 2012 election. After a year of inaction, they’ve not only failed to enact meaningful immigration reform, they’re now on record to the right of Mitt Romney, the candidate whose disastrous showing with Latino voters spurred them to revisit the issue in the first place.

Romney emphasized a military immigration option during his campaign to soften his opposition to the DREAM Act, which also included an academic route to citizenship. It didn’t do much for him politically as Latinos and Asians voted for Democrats by huge margins. Now even that’s too much for the House GOP.

Of course, many Republican members of Congress say it’s unfair to characterize their positions as anti-reform. After all, House leaders just months ago produced a set of principles for reform that included a path to legal status and possibly citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It’s just that members don’t like the idea of, say, dealing with the issue in the wrong committee. Or they don’t like the timing of the debate. Or they like an immigration bill, but they don’t want to force a vote on it. Or they don’t trust the president 71% of Latinos voted for enough to negotiate a deal. 

Who knows, maybe there’s some policy merit to the excuses. Politically, though, Republicans are close to committing themselves to a 2016 election in which the party’s brand is at least as anti-immigration as their 2012 incarnation.

The problem is exacerbated by what little immigration-related legislation that has gotten a vote this year. An amendment by anti-immigrant icon King to stop an Obama-initiated program protecting DREAMers from deportation passed in 2013 with almost unanimous Republican support. So did the ENFORCE Act this year, a bill that gives Congress greater ability to sue the administration over executive actions, partly in response to Obama’s immigration order. Maybe Speaker John Boehner will find time for some more friendly bills, but this week’s military meltdown doesn’t exactly bode well for dramatic action.

Nor is the worst necessarily over. Immigration advocates widely expect Obama to take further executive action to halt some deportations once he and Democratic leaders conclude there’s no credible route to a deal with the House. Putting the policy merits aside, any such move would produce an immediate backlash pitting Latino and immigrant rights groups against enraged Republicans. 

What do House Republicans have on the other side of the ledger? A non-binding memo by House GOP leaders that only 19 Republican members will even admit they support, per Roll Call, which asked the entire caucus for their position.

Unless Boehner has a major surprise in store this year or (even less likely) next Congress in the middle of a Republican presidential primary, the circle of outreach looks close to completion. The party will head into 2016 the same way it entered 2012, with a handful of leaders interested in immigration reform who are demonstrably overwhelmed by opponents of even the most minor concessions.