G.O.P.’s Fine Line on Migration
WASHINGTON — In 1996, when a surge in illegal immigration collided with the overheated politics of a presidential election, Republicans demanded a strict crackdown.
They passed a measure in the House that would have allowed states to bar children who were in the country illegally from public schools. Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, the party’s nominee for president, called for limiting social services to immigrants in the country illegally. Patrick J. Buchanan, one of Mr. Dole’s rivals, had promised to build an electric fence along the border with Mexico.
When Mr. Dole lost to Bill Clinton that year, he received just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote — a record low for a Republican nominee — and the party has never really recovered, even as the Hispanic vote has come to represent 10 percent of the presidential electorate, doubling from 1996.
Some senior Republicans are warning that the party cannot rebuild its reputation with Hispanics if it is drawn into another emotional fight over cracking down on migrants — especially when so many are young children who are escaping extreme poverty and violence. But pleas for compassion and even modest proposals for change are dividing the party, and setting off intense resistance among conservative Republicans who have resisted a broader overhaul of immigration.
Gestures of sympathy, like a trip to the border by Glenn Beck, the conservative radio and television personality who has raised more than $2 million to buy teddy bears, shoes and food for migrant children, were met with scorn and derision. Some anti-immigrant activists responded to news that the government was buying new clothing for the detainees by organizing a campaign to mail them dirty underwear.
“We can’t elect another Republican president in 2016 who gets 27 percent of the Hispanic vote,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, referring to the percentage Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Mr. Cornyn voted against the broad immigration overhaul last year but introduced a compromise measure this week with a Texas Democrat from the House, Representative Henry Cuellar, that would speed the deportation of some children while allowing those who request asylum to stay as they await a hearing.
Noting the demographic shifts in his own state — where he observed, “It’s not just people that look like me” — Mr. Cornyn added: “This is a challenge for the country, and we need to solve it. And we have a political imperative as Republicans to deal with this or else we will find ourselves in a permanent minority status.”
The cycle of failing to win over Hispanics can be traced in many respects to 1994, when Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican, faced a difficult re-election fight and backed Proposition 187, which prohibited the state from providing health care, public education or other social services to immigrants in the country illegally, a measure that so angered Hispanics it all but delivered the state to Democrats in presidential elections ever since. In comparison, President Ronald Reagan won 45 percent of Latino voters in California in 1984.
Looking toward the next presidential election, other Republicans who once opposed immigration overhaul are now talking about the need to deal with the current crisis in a compassionate way. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who is considering a run for president and voted against the immigration bill last year, said this week that he considered himself “a moderate conservative who’s for immigration reform” but wants to see border security improved.
“From a conservative point of view, you can’t have forms of forgiveness without a secure border,” Mr. Paul said. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t bring a lot of those people to our country, that we don’t have room for them,” he added. “I think we frankly do need many of these people for workers. But you can’t have a beacon of hope and you can’t have a forgiveness plan without a secure border.”
With so many Republicans still opposed to sweeping policy changes, the compromise they are proposing now is more a move to do no further harm to their image with Hispanics than it is an effort to court votes. And a split within the Democratic Party over how to handle deportations poses a threat similar to the Republican schism. Many liberals are outraged that Republicans are demanding to scale back a 2008 law that granted more leniency to migrant children from Central America in an effort to combat human trafficking. And if enough Democrats refuse to go along with those changes, President Obama’s request for almost $4 billion to address the crisis could fall apart.
A critical question hanging over the Republican Party, and indeed over any hopes of passing legislation through Congress before its recess in two weeks, is whether even incremental immigration changes can advance when many on the right are so opposed.
Mr. Cornyn’s compromise already has drawn the ire of conservative activists who want to see deportations accelerated. Some Republicans in Congress, like his junior colleague from Texas, Senator Ted Cruz, say the compromise does not go far enough. Mr. Cruz has tried to persuade Republicans to nullify a directive handed down from Mr. Obama to halt deportation proceedings against certain unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children.
Other Republicans have said that while Congress needs to revisit that directive, doing so would stymie the chances of getting something meaningful done now. “We need reform,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. But doing so now, she added, “that’s a difficult expectation.”
Republicans have the chance to step in, Ms. Collins added, where the president’s policies have failed. “It’s frustrating to me that the administration has been so slow to respond,” she said, noting how apprehensions along the border first doubled last year. “His answer, which is so often the case, is more money, more money, more money.”
With polls showing that large majorities of Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Obama is handling the border crisis, Republicans say the opportunity is theirs to squander.
Some Republicans noted that the one time in the last six presidential elections when their nominee won the popular vote was 2004, when George W. Bush carried an estimated 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee who ran for president in 1996, said that if Republicans are to win back the Senate and the White House, they have to start passing more laws. Immigration overhaul, he said, would be a start.
“In order to have a Republican president, we have to demonstrate that we can govern,” he said, adding that he was pleased to see how conservative members of his party like Mr. Paul and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have been speaking out on immigration overhaul. “Showing that we can fix the immigration system is an essential part of showing we can govern.”
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