How Immigration Reform Is Like Welfare Reform, Politically

April 09, 2013

Immigration reform legislation will be proposed in the Senate soon and there's a debate within the Republican Party about whether it makes sense to support it.  I think it's politically smart for the GOP to do so, but not for the reason most commonly cited.

One of the biggest lessons of the 2012 election, according to many commentators, was the Republicans’ failure to attract more minority voters. President Obama crushed Governor Romney among Hispanics, so there has been a rush among conservatives to figure out how to win more of that vote. Strategists note that George W. Bush did far better among Latinos than Romney, proving that it is possible for Republicans to increase their share.

Since many Hispanics care a lot about immigration reform, it makes sense for Republicans to support it.  But the problem is that many white Republican voters strongly oppose any reform that includes a "path to citizenship." In fact, denouncing this "amnesty" has been a reliable way to stoke the passions of conservative voters. So there are those in the Party who see support for immigration reform as a no-win situation.

I think those urging caution are right on one count.  After Romney's "self-deportation" statements and years of hard line opposition to "amnesty," Latino voters are unlikely to give Republicans much of the credit for reform. And hardline conservatives will, indeed, be angry and cynical about it.

But supporting a "path to citizenship" still makes political sense for many of the same reasons Bill Clinton signed welfare reform in the 1990s.  Welfare "cheats" and the sense of government giving middle class tax dollars to the "lazy" long-term unemployed dogged Democrats for decades.  By signing the welfare reform bill, Clinton largely moved the country past that debate.  He may not have immediately won back many of the voters who most hated welfare, but he took a powerful issue away from his opposition.  It became much harder for them to stoke those resentments in a way that had been so beneficial to Republicans since the 1960’s.

The same will be true if Republicans in Congress can get immigration reform behind them.  They may not get much credit with Latinos, but it will allow them to deliver other messages to that demographic group that may work better for them -- on social and economic issues, for instance. Until immigration reform and Republican’s history of opposition to it is off the table, relatively few Hispanics will be open to hearing those other ideas.

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