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Immigration fight threatens to divide GOP and spill into 2016

The ongoing fight over President Obama's immigration moves has some Republicans worried about 2016.
An activist holds a sign during a gathering to celebrate President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration policy in New York, N.Y., on Nov. 21, 2014. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
An immigrant rights activist holds a sign reading \"equality, nothing more,\" during a gathering to celebrate U.S. President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration policy in Washington Square Park on Nov. 21, 2014 in New York, N.Y.

Republicans are hailing a federal judge’s decision to halt President Obama’s new program that would allow potentially millions of undocumented immigrants to temporarily work and live in the United States. But the ongoing court dispute threatens to lengthen what is becoming an increasingly divisive fight within the party — and one that could spill over into 2016.

Republicans are virtually united in decrying Obama’s executive action as an overreach. Even politicians like Jeb Bush, who published an entire book calling for some path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, seem comfortable criticizing the moves – the former Florida governor said Obama “overstepped his executive authority” in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

RELATED: Judge blocks Obama’s immigration actions — what happens next?

Beyond that, however, things get dicey. The House passed a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security that would not only block Obama’s latest actions, but also expose virtually all undocumented immigrants to deportation. The White House has threatened to veto it, however, and the Senate can’t overcome a Democratic filibuster so far. That’s left Republicans arguing over what to do before the Feb. 27 deadline to fund DHS. Do they pass a “clean” bill without the immigration measures, maybe putting the issue on hold until the next round of court decisions? Or do they risk another shutdown fight?

Conservatives argue the political damage would be minimal given that the 2013 shutdown didn’t stop the GOP from having a great 2014 election. The damage in a presidential year could be greater, however, especially with a growing Latino electorate in swing states like Florida and Colorado. The group could play an even larger role in 2016 than it did in 2012. A high-profile shutdown fight cheered on by the conservative grassroots would put enormous pressure on the Republican presidential field to swing to the right early on immigration. And once it gets there, it’s hard to leave. 

On Wednesday, top GOP fundraisers held a conference call warning Republicans that they needed to play a more constructive role on immigration rather than just opposing Obama.

“The math is not great if you’re running for a president as a Republican,” Spencer Zwick, a top Mitt Romney donor and highly coveted GOP fundraiser, said. He singled out Bush for his “leadership” and added that the party’s candidates “need to be in a similar place” to on immigration.

“I think anyone who has any common sense will see the writing on the wall and the incoming tide,” Mike Fernandez, a Republican fundraiser in Florida, told reporters.

Republican leaders in the House have similarly suggested in recent weeks that the party needs to commit itself to passing immigration legislation after House Speaker John Boehner publicly refused to address the issue in 2014.

RELATED: Hopes dashed once more for DREAMers

A major problem, however, is that it’s unclear what “immigration reform” even means at this point. Every branch of the GOP has its own definition and they’re often incompatible. Republicans like Zwick are part of the party’s business wing, which wants more immigrants in order to fill low-skilled and high-skilled jobs in key industries and to keep population growth — a prime driver of the economy — from stagnating. The base wants more border security and more deportations and regards the business side with suspicion. Rick Santorum, a possible presidential candidate, is already railing against legal and illegal immigration alike. Meanwhile, Latino voters that Republican political strategists are so worried about in 2016 are more focused on obtaining legal status for the existing pool of undocumented immigrants, a policy many conservatives don’t want under any circumstances.

Republicans, including Boehner, argue that meeting all these needs at once is too tall an order and instead have suggested passing bills gradually, starting with enforcement. But they’ve shown no sign whatsoever that they have the ability to pass the more contentious legislation — especially regarding undocumented immigrants — when the time comes. That means Latino voters and especially Spanish-language media are far more likely to see a new border crackdown as an attack rather than as the first step to eventual reform. That's certainly how the GOP's current push to overturn Obama's protections is portrayed. 

"The Texas decision clearly defines who is against immigrants in the U.S.," Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, an influential Spanish media icon and reform advocate, tweeted on Wednesday. "Latino voters will remember; 2016 is not that far away."

By contrast, the Senate’s bipartisan “comprehensive” reform bill in 2013 would have doubled the border patrol and added a host of new enforcement measures, but it garnered support from major Latino advocacy groups by simultaneously moving towards legal status for current undocumented immigrants. Will any Republican candidate, even Bush, be willing to stick their neck out for something like it in 2016? Or will “reform” become a catch-call for passing something — anything — while vaguely hinting at more to come down the line?