The Republican immigration dilemma

President Obama told The Des Moines Register shortly before this November’s election: “Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.” During the Register interview, Obama pledged once more to pass immigration reform in his second term. “I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I’ve cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008,” he said.

After the election, the pride among Latino grassroots leaders was palpable. They knew they had delivered for the president. Clearly, the high turnout and overwhelming support for President Obama among Latino voters were critical in delivering key swing states like Florida, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia. The big question now is whether these Latino grassroots leaders will get the comprehensive immigration reform the president promised.

If political operatives in Washington are to be believed, it will never happen. These operatives are predicting a strange bedfellows alliance between extremists on the left and the right to derail any real effort to modernize our immigration laws. Both extremes benefit from having this issue unresolved, which will allow them to mobilize their bases through fear during the next political cycle.

Here’s what to expect: President Obama will have his congressional allies push for the most liberal immigration reform legislation possible, guaranteeing that lawmakers won’t reach a consensus and there won’t be a vote on the legislation. Then, the president will tell Latino groups, “We tried, but the Republicans blocked us again. That is why we need your vote again in 2014 to get immigration reform passed.” Sound familiar?

If the White House is serious, there will be a few early signs. Keep an eye on Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). His strong independent leadership on this issue has gotten him in trouble with the White House in the past. We will know if the president is again playing politics with immigration reform by whether he secures Gutierrez’s support.

However, the early signs are not good. The fact that the president’s major Latino donors are organizing themselves to run around the existing Latino groups and activists suggests that the White House is putting politics over policy once again. Obama’s team knows they do not control Mr. Gutierrez’s powerful voice in the Latino community, so they are building a very well-financed communications operation to control the message delivered to Latino voters.

Congressional Republicans will likely ensure the president’s strategy succeeds. I expect them to propose poorly designed immigration legislation that is timid and tries to appease everyone except the loud but effective partisan talking heads on the Democratic side that dominate the Spanish-language airwaves. That would be a Republican disaster that would cement Democratic dominance of the Latino vote for decades to come.