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The GOP's nightmare scenario on immigration becomes reality

Immigration reform was on the verge of death before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost on Tuesday, and it’s worse than ever today.
Oscar Rojas carries an American flag during a May Day demonstration in Oakland
Oscar Rojas carries an American flag during a May Day demonstration for immigration reform and worker rights in Oakland, California on May 1, 2014.

Immigration reform was on the verge of death before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost on Tuesday, and it’s worse than ever today.

Immigration's role in Cantor race against primary challenger Dave Brat was complicated. But for the Republican rank-and-file lawmakers who have spent the last year resisting Speaker Boehner's pleas to address the issue, watching their majority leader lose to an opponent who cast even Cantor's vague, inconsistent hints at immigration reform as "amnesty" isn't exactly encouraging. 

The immediate impact is on policy. Millions of undocumented immigrants and millions more American citizens in mixed-status families will continue to live in uncertainty; legal immigrants will continue to be stymied by long backlogs; and the border, where a wave of unaccompanied Central American children has created a humanitarian crisis, will not receive an influx of new resources.

But the political impact matters too. Congress would never have taken up immigration reform in 2013 if Republicans weren’t terrified by Hispanic and, to a lesser degree, Asian voters’ growing influence, which reached new heights in President Obama’s re-election campaign. The numbers are stark: not only did Obama win 71% of the Latino vote over Republican Mitt Romney, but Hispanic voters' share of the electorate could potentially double by 2030 while the GOP’s older white base declines.

Republican pollsters, who have been loudly sounding the alarm on the GOP’s looming demographic problem, are desperately trying to get the party to finish the job on immigration. Ten prominent GOP firms released extensive polling this week sponsored by pro-reform group that bore two key points: Latino voters are overwhelmingly prepared to blame the GOP for the failure of immigration reform, and yet GOP voters are more open to reform than they once appeared. Even 62% of “tea party” Republicans favored some kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants.

But while a number of polls, even one in Cantor’s own district, have found immigration reform to be popular with Republicans, the GOP’s most conservative voters are highly skeptical. That skepticism made Republican lawmakers nervous about moving on reform before Cantor’s loss and it’s only going to get worse now. 

It’s not just the GOP’s imminent failure to pass legislation that’s so politically dangerous to the party – it’s the manner in which immigration reform is dying.

Republicans have offered a number of scenarios in which the party might fail to pass immigration reform this year but still begin the process of wooing Latino voters back.

Some Republicans, including Cantor himself, suggested that the GOP might pass modest legislation granting legal status to young undocumented immigrants as a possible down payment on broader reform. Others, like Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, suggested the GOP might clarify its position by passing immigration legislation in the House but waiting for a future (hopefully more Republican) Senate to negotiate a final deal. The Senate has already passed a sweeping reform bill crafted by a bipartisan committee.

Some strategists have suggested Republicans might punt on reform now, then nominate a candidate like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2016 who’d persuade Latinos that they could sell their party on immigration reform more successfully than a polarizing Democratic president.

In every case, the GOP would blame Democrats for scuttling a big bipartisan deal.  

These strategies for saving face with Hispanic voters always seemed like a long shot, especially efforts to deflect responsibility to Democrats. Why would Latino voters’ instinct be to blame the party they overwhelmingly voted for in 2012 instead of the GOP?  This week’s poll found that 49% of Latino voters were prepared to tag Republicans in Congress with killing reform versus only 11% who would blame Obama and 11% who would blame Democrats.

But after Cantor’s ouster, it’s a moot point. None of these hypothetical scenarios will come to pass. Instead, the GOP is entering the darkest timeline: The party is going to leave the immigration debate in worse shape than they entered it.

There will be no “down payment” on any kind of reform this Congress after Cantor’s loss. Immigration reform activists loathed Cantor, who they considered beholden to the GOP’s right flank and unwilling to go along with Speaker John Boehner’s push for legislation. That he lost a primary while being tarred as an “amnesty” advocate for just vaguely hinting at immigration reform is not going to encourage members on the fence.

As for stating their position and trying again in 2015, House GOP leaders have already tried to float a vague set of immigration principles that included legal status for undocumented immigrants. Rather than make the GOP look more moderate, it confirmed their existing problems: a conservative backlash forced Boehner to back off the issue while only a handful of Republicans were willing to endorse the document.  There’s no hiding the party’s position now.

The myth of the presidential savior in 2016 looks dashed too. A party whose leaders are so weak they can’t even protect their own majority leader doesn’t look amenable to taking orders from a pro-reform president (or nominating one, for that matter). Especially given that Republicans killed immigration reform under the last Republican president, George W. Bush.

All this already gives Republicans little to offer Hispanic voters upset over immigration reform’s fate in the House. But it actually gets worse. Not only did the House GOP fail to pass a bill, but in the process of trying to sell Republicans on an eventual deal, House leaders threw various sops to hardline conservatives along the way.

They voted overwhelmingly for an amendment by anti-immigration leader Rep. Steve King last year that would have ordered President Obama to start deporting young undocumented immigrants again. They voted for the ENFORCE Act, which would have made it easier to challenge Obama in court to deport more immigrants. They killed a weak measure to let undocumented immigrants achieve legal status through military service. And the party is poised to explode when Obama, under pressure from Latino groups, inevitably alters deportation procedures further.

The hope was always that these efforts to placate the right would grease the wheels for difficult reform votes further down the road. Those votes aren’t coming. As a result, Republicans will end 2014 further to the right on immigration than even Mitt Romney, who favored a military path to citizenship even as he advocated “self-deportation.”

All this presents Democrats with an incredibly simple message to Latino voters moving forward. The GOP is incapable of passing reform, full stop. If you want change, you need Democratic majorities and a Democratic president.

If the GOP wants to retake the White House in 2016, they’ll have to either hope for economic disaster or find a narrow path that doesn’t include Latino voters.