11/25/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Republican Party Needs Immigration Reform

In this season of folly in which the Republican Party has lurched from the debacles of the government shutdown and the debt ceiling to now anger over the embarrassing failings of the HealthCare.Gov website, President Obama and others have renewed the call for the serious work of comprehensive immigration reform. Republican leaders would be well served to hear what they have to say, because at this point it may be the Republican Party that stands to gain most from reform's passage.

The Latino community is deeply wounded from the death of the last immigration reform bill, the specter of "self deportation", and State laws like Arizona's SB 1070, which seemed to impinge even upon the rights of Latinos who are citizens. It should come as no surprise that when asked by the Public Religion Research Institute to describe Republicans, 48% of Latinos used words like "intolerant" or that Latinos in the study identified three to one with the Democratic Party.

A bipartisan immigration bill has already passed the Senate; the President continues to reiterate his support. A straight up or down vote in the House of Representatives would likely see bipartisan passage. It is a matter of choice by the House leadership that keeps immigration reform from being reality. And there is a price to be paid for that intransigence. A recent poll from the research firm Latino Decisions showed that even among Latinos who in the past have voted for Republican candidates, 51% would feel "angry" if the House blocked immigration reform. This should come as no surprise to the Republican leadership, the most recent poll by the PRRI, in this case with the Brookings Institution, showed that even the majority of white evangelical Republicans support immigration reform.

The latest trope against immigration reform is that Latinos are inevitably Democratic voters and, in fact, Latino's have shown a sharp shift toward Democratic positions in recent polls. However, Republican leaders should ask themselves why? Why would the Democrats win the support of the vast majority of a group in which 83% are religiously affiliated, 75% believe that if you work hard as an individual you can be successful and in which self-described conservatives outweigh liberals? According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center those are the beliefs of Latino-Americans. Republicans should be able to see themselves in those beliefs.

The risks to the Republican party of further delaying immigration reform are palpable. Texas tells the story. Mitt Romney won the state by the seeming insurmountable total of over 1.2 million votes, but Latinos already represent over 30% of voters in Texas and nearly 200,000 additional Latinos become eligible to vote there every year. If Texas moves from red to blue over the next decade, Republican Presidential candidates will face the nearly insurmountable hurdle of having the four largest states, California, Florida, New York and Texas, 151 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for election, consistently in the Democratic column. Texas is not the only Southwestern or even Southern state moving in this direction. The electoral math should be transparent to Republican leaders.

There is also the wild card of the coming Congressional election. Republican control of the House of Representatives is taken as an immutable reality of our political situation, but only 17 House seats separate the Democrats from control over all three branches of government and public approval of the Republican-controlled House fell to its lowest level in history this Fall. The Associated Press had Congressional approval at 5%; Fox News at 9%. Richard Nixon, during the depths of the Watergate hearings and his subsequent resignation, had a higher approval rating than the current Republican controlled House of Representatives. Even in some firmly Republican districts, approval ratings for recently elected Congressman have fallen below 40%. Immigration reform passed exclusively by Democrats after years of Republican obstruction would be akin to losing the Super Bowl, devastating.

Like cowboys riding into a steeply walled canyon in an old western, the Republican Party would be well advised to rethink its path forward. When the team of contractors and technology experts brought in by the White House to fix the HealthCare.Gov website resolves the problem in coming weeks, as they inevitably will, what happens? In fact, isn't the call for a working interface an implicit endorsement of the service the web site provides? Republican party leaders need to move away from the self-immolating distractions of this Fall, no matter how beneficial they feel they might be short term, and begin to ask whether or not they are willing to cede the Latino vote and the Southwest to the Democratic Party in this generation. If the answer to that question is no, then the current distraction over the web site needs to give way to real debate and passage of comprehensive immigration reform.