Published on TheHill.com on May 23, 2007.
The Republican Party would be self-destructive (not for the first time, either) if they did not let the immigration compromise negotiated by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pass and become law. The hopes of the entire Latino community are pinned to immigration reform and, if the GOP is seen as blocking it, the consequences for the indefinite future will be horrific. The Republican Party will lose Hispanics as surely as they lost blacks when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964 against the civil rights bill (even though a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats backed the bill in each house).
If the Hispanics are not massively turned off by a Republican rejection of immigration reform, they will drift into an increasingly pro-Republican orientation just as Irish and Italian Catholics did before them. Already Protestant evangelicalism has converted a third of the American Latino population, a clear precursor of GOP political support.
Hispanics now account for 13 percent of the U.S. population (blacks are 12 percent) and will constitute 20 percent of our population by 2020 regardless of whether immigration reform passes or not. Key red states like Texas and Florida hang in the balance, depending on the voting intention of their burgeoning Latino populations.
The reform compromise proposed in the Senate postpones, in my opinion wrongly, granting citizenship and voting rights to immigrants now in the U.S. for at least a decade. While they get legal status immediately on payment of a $5,000 fine, they must return to their country of origin and wait their turn in line for a valid green card to return legally. Only then can they become citizens. Given the seven- to eight-year wait for green cards, they would not be a potent political force until well into the next decade.
In the meantime, the GOP base should note that the bill commits the Democrats to the border fence and a major increase in border guards. It also will require tamper-proof identification cards, a key element in blocking further illegal immigration.
But the political stakes are largely in the symbolism of the bill. Whichever party is seen as supporting reform will gain a huge vote share among Hispanics, and the opponents will lose accordingly.
Had the Republicans gotten it together to pass such a bill while they ran Congress, they would have gotten unambiguous credit for the achievement. This history would have made it possible to switch Latinos into Republican voters. Surely, two-thirds of Latinos would not have voted Democrat as they did, in their disappointment with the lack of a bill, in 2006.
In fact, the Republican Party could well have held onto the Senate with a few Latino switches in key states like Georgia and Missouri.
Now the GOP will have to share credit with the Democrats, but the signature on the bill will still read “George W. Bush,” a fact that Latinos are not going to forget.
But if the Republicans kill the bill, driven by their own irreconcilable base, they will leave it to the next president -very probably a Democrat – and two Democratic houses of Congress to pass the liberating legislation. The GOP will have delivered the largest minority group in America right into the hands of its adversaries.
The compromise requires English skills, payment of a fine, and a good work history for an illegal immigrant to get citizenship. It also requires that he “touch back” in Mexico and wait his turn. The bill also puts border enforcement before the granting of rights.
Democrats want Hispanics to vote but don’t want them to work and compete with their labor union allies for jobs.
Republicans want them to work (since the employers are mostly Republican) but don’t want them to vote.
This bill, unfortunately, allows current illegal immigrants to work immediately but defers giving them the franchise for almost a decade. It’s a bill a Republican should love.