President Obama, Democratic Senate leaders, and immigration rights groups heaped praise on GOP Senate leaders for finally getting enough of their party members to pass an immigration reform bill. It was indeed quite a feat considering the long, relentless, and dogged fight by the GOP majority to duck, dodge, and bury proposals on immigration reform. The conventional wisdom is that the 2012 presidential elections was the icy slap in the face to the GOP when the party saw the faint chance it had to recapture the White House buried in the avalanche of Hispanic votes against it. This was chalked up to its implacable hostility to immigration reform.
Many in the GOP, most notably former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove, have pounded away at GOP leaders to change their ways and actively court Hispanic voters or risk sliding into permanent minority party status in national elections. And backing immigration reform is supposedly the quantum step forward to get more Hispanic votes. But they are still far and away in the GOP minority.
The proof is the immigration bill itself, and what it took to get it through the Senate, and what its fate is likely to be in the House. Senate GOP leaders overloaded the bill with a dizzying 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. The bigger ploy to limit or kill outright immigration reform is the House. GOP Senate leaders gave strong hints that they have little hope that the House will 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.
From the view of many in the GOP, there are two sound political reasons to keep playing hardball on immigration. The first is the calculus that Hispanic voters won't leap over themselves in a headlong rush to the GOP simply because the party has changed its mind about immigration. The hard reality is that the majority of Hispanic voters are 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. Hispanics closely parallel African Americans in that they suffer the same gaping disparities in income, health care, and education in comparison to whites. They are more likely to live in poor, segregated, urban communities, and their children attend segregated, grossly underserved public schools.
Government has always been viewed as their backstop to protect their interests. In exit polls following the 2008 presidential election, voters were asked whether they thought government or private business did the best at solving the country's pressing economic problems. The overwhelming majority of Hispanics gave the government the nod.
In years past the GOP might have had a shot at attracting more Hispanic voters by skillfully exploiting the wedge issues of abortion, gay marriage and traditional family values. But this too has changed. A Pew survey in 2012 found that a majority of Hispanics now back gay marriage, abortion, and more than half were single parents. In 2012 election exit polls, Hispanics supported Obama's position that "health insurance organizations should be required to cover contraceptives" by a huge margin.
The other reason 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. This is in part the ingrained belief in the insecure border myth and in part the equally ingrained xenophobic, nativist and borderline racist view of many in the GOP's core base. The fear is that a full-throated embrace of comprehensive immigration reform will alienate even more conservative white voters that the GOP still heavily relies on to win state elections. The hope is that with a better effort to get millions of disaffected conservative and evangelical white voters back to the polls in 2014 and 2016 the GOP will have a real shot at winning national elections again, and without Obama as the Democratic presidential incumbent in 2016 the even more hopeful longing of winning the White House.
The supposed GOP breakthrough on immigration reform is on closer look not the breakthrough many think. And for many in the GOP immigration reform is still seen as a lose lose.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). 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.