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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

The GOP's Phony Embrace of Immigration Reform

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House speaker John Boehner pulled off quite a feat for the GOP House leaders. After month and months of either silence on or outright hostility toward even the hint of talk about immigration reform, the GOP leadership at Boehner's urging now leads the charge to go forward on immigration reform legislation. The package of measures that the GOP has plopped on the House table is mostly piecemeal stuff that in no way can be called the type of comprehensive legislation that the Senate passed last year, and in fact, has been packaged since the Bush years.

Still, what's been put forth is a surprise. The reasons to explain the GOP's apparent about face are varied. It's a naked grab for Hispanic votes, or at the least to take some of the edge off the ferocious hostility of Hispanic voters toward the GOP. The Chamber of Commerce, agribusiness groups, and restaurant and manufacturer associations which the GOP has a finely-tuned ear toward demand an end to the party's intransigence on immigration reform. It's a PR ploy to take the issue off the table for the Democrats or at best make it less a distraction in the mid-term and 2016 presidential elections. Or, that Boehner is using the immigration reform issue for his own cynical political purposes and that being to bludgeon the tea party backed House GOP ultraconservatives into line.

There are bits of truth to all of these explanations, especially the notion that the GOP is looking over its shoulder at the Hispanic vote, and the serious need to do a little image makeover. However, that still begs the question of given the GOP's dogged animus in the past to immigration reform, how genuine is its supposed newfound embrace of it? The answer is still not much. Take the Senate bill that GOP leaders signed on to last year. Senate GOP leaders overloaded the bill with a top-heavy array of qualifiers, penalties, target triggers and the ultimate ploy, embedding into the bill top-heavy demands for wildly inflated border security spending and measures that are unnecessary. The border is more secure than ever, and billions are spent on every surveillance method under the sun and thousands of border patrol agents on the ground to keep it that way. At the time, GOP Senate leaders gave strong hints that they had little hope that the House would pass the bill. Key GOP House leaders confirmed that by quickly branding the bill an amnesty bill. This, along with the border security demand have been the twin aces the GOP has played to kill immigration reform. It's no different this time. Nothing has changed with the House immigration thrust. GOP backers still put border security at the top of the list of concerns; this is the price to get any movement on any of the proposals.

The hard truth is that Hispanic voters won't leap over themselves in a headlong rush to the GOP simply because the GOP-controlled House appears to have changed its mind about immigration. The majority of Hispanic voters will remain wedded to the Democratic Party for the same reason that African Americans, the poor and for most of the country's recent political history, rank-and-file white blue collar workers have been Democratic Party stalwarts. They perceive that the Democrats will protect and fight for their economic interests. The GOP is seen as the enemy of their interests.

The bigger reason to mistrust GOP House members pitch for immigration reform is the GOP's white conservative base. Polls do show that a significant percent of GOP conservative voters favor some kind of immigration reform. But they also show that the majority of GOP voters still cling tightly to the notion that the borders are too porous and that any provision for amnesty in a bill rewards law breaking. The fear is that a full-throated embrace of comprehensive immigration reform will alienate even more conservative white voters.

This fear looms even bigger in the coming midterm elections. Older, white conservative voters are the voters that the GOP has banked on in the past, and will again this year to insure that the it retains and even increases its numbers in the House. But more importantly it banks on them turning out in far greater numbers as in the past than blacks, Hispanics and young voters to tip the scales and topple Democratic senators up for reelection in key states. This would effectively give the GOP full control over Congress. The much worried over Hispanic vote is no plus for the GOP in the midterms. They are too small a percent of the vote to make a difference in these vital Senate races. And the overwhelming majority of House Republicans represent districts where Hispanics still make up a small percentage of the voters.

The supposed GOP breakthrough on immigration reform is, on closer look then, not the breakthrough it appears. Or put simply, it has all the makings of a phony embrace.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.