Republicans, Latinos and the Immigration Debate

04/22/2013 01:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
  • Ryan Campbell Editor at DRM Capitol Group, Media Manager @DRMAction

"Broken" has been the word used by the left, the right and the center of politics in the United States to describe the current immigration system, which gives little to no hope for citizenship to those in the country without status, even after decades of doing everything right. After an election in which Latinos formed a vital portion of the coalition that Obama put together, Republicans at the national level have changed their rhetoric. The coming weeks will be a vital time to see if Republicans create matching change in their policies.

The title of the Senate's immigration bill -- The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 -- says it all. To be sure, the bill that has been introduced to the Senate is not simple "amnesty," as so many have cried before seeing the text: Literally written at the top of Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) synopsis is "The Toughest Border Security & Enforcement Measures in U.S. History." Included is funding for border security (including a fence), requirements for metrics like "100% border awareness," "90% apprehension rates in high-risk sectors," "Universal E-verify" and a "Visa exit system" to stop visa overstays.

The above are all things that immigration advocates have demonstrated against in the past. The bill doesn't make anything easy enough to be called "amnesty," especially not considering the 10-year probationary period and fines and back taxes that undocumented immigrants who are applying for status will have to pay.

Some of the most intelligent voices in business, from Michael Bloomberg to the leaders of Silicon Valley, are behind reform; the "Gang of Eight" is pushing full-steam ahead; even the AFLCIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labor and business were able to agree on an outline for an immigration package. Everything is lining up behind immigration reform, including Rubio, debatably the only rising star in the Republican Party other than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who has any hope of appealing to moderates and independents.

It's the first opportunity for Republicans to begin to reform their image with Latinos since S.B. 1070, filibustering the DREAM Act and Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" rhetoric cost the Republicans what could have been an easy victory in 2012, and then Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) actually says, "Radical Islamists ... are trained to act Hispanic."

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, which is responsible for getting Republicans elected, came out with the so-called "autopsy report" that pointed to a "Latino problem." Reince might have had an aneurism over Rep. Don Young's (R-Alaska) "wetbacks" comment, which required a solid day of public shaming before an adequate apology could be wrestled from him by Speaker Of the House John Boehner; it would be perfectly justifiable. He then could have had a heart attack over Goehmert's comments. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has been making noise about the implications that the Boston Marathon attacks would have on immigration reform before the dust even settled and we knew whether the attacks had foreign or domestic origins; this could be an ulcer for Mr. Priebus. In fact, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has jumped on the anti-immigration/let's-not-heal-our-rift-with-Latinos bandwagon to ensure that he can't be "primaried" next year. Our hypothetical Reince Priebus may need a wheelchair that he can pilot with his eyeballs due to stress-related diseases before the immigration debate is done.

Gohmert and King are essentially lifetime gaff factories, the former being regular Daily Show fodder for publicly saying highlight-reel stupid things, like his "terror baby" theory, which held that al-Qaeda would send pregnant women to the U.S. to raise terrorists. King is known for his controversial, McCarthy-esque Muslim hearings. And considering that Alabama has a tiny Latino population (just 4 percent of the state population), it makes sense that Sessions would come out with nonsensical comments like "The day the bill passes, there will be effective amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants."

As the party repairs its image amongst Latinos, which was so badly damaged during the rhetoric of the 2012 campaign season, figures like Sessions will increasingly stand out as more politicians become moderate on the issue. While Sessions may be able to insulate himself from the consequences and score some cheap political points, fellow Republicans will take a hit as members of the "Party of No" on immigration once again; it won't help Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) win reelection in a state that's 38-percent Latino.

The rhetoric from Republicans may have changed, but this is a recent development; the Supreme Court battle over S.B. 1070, the "self-deportation" rhetoric and the filibuster of the 2010 DREAM Act are all in the memory of voters. The more Gohmert, King and Sessions rail against immigration reform, the more the Republicans' recent history with Latinos will remain an issue moving forward.