The Republican immigration dilemma

Robert G. de Posada Founder, Latinos for Reform
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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.

So what should Republicans do? They should begin by making President Obama move first and spend some of his political capital on immigration reform. Republicans must call his bluff and demand that the president directly propose legislative language to initiate the debate in Congress. Second, Republicans should not draft legislation until the president introduces his legislation. Third, Republicans should demand that the president appoint senior officials from his cabinet to negotiate this issue on Capitol Hill. And finally, Republicans must make it clear that they will allow a vote in Congress on this issue, in order to make sure that politicians stop hiding behind the rhetoric and defend their votes.

As this process develops, Republicans must begin a dialogue with Latino leaders, business groups, religious organizations and conservative activists to put together a well-thought-out, comprehensive effort to modernize our outdated immigration laws and do an end run around the president’s attempt to weaponize Latino issues for his political gain.

More importantly, Republicans must stand for something. Modernizing immigration laws involves more than border security or “self-deportation.” Republicans need a comprehensive plan that will help promote economic growth.

The immigration debate poses risks for Democrats as well. Latino voters are expecting results, and they are tired of excuses. If Democrats try to be cute, their strategy might backfire. If voters realize that politicians and their operatives are playing games with this issue by drafting legislation that has no real chance of passing or by using legislative maneuvers to keep the bill from becoming law, the consequences could be devastating.

Real reform that can pass Congress and get signed by the president must be the priority. We can shoot for the stars, but the fact remains that we need achievable legislation that will give families a sense of security. If history repeats itself and Democrats decide to play partisan games with immigration legislation, Latino activists will face a serious dilemma of their own. Will they continue to blindly support Democrats or will they make them pay for their actions, or lack thereof, in 2014?

Robert G. Deposada is the founder and former president of The Latino Coalition and Latinos for Reform.