How xenophobes control the GOP: The right’s impossible immigration reform dilemma

The only immigration plan Republicans would support would help them with neither immigrants nor the right

Published January 31, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Steve King                              (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Steve King (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Carolyn Kaster)

On Thursday, we examined the bind Democrats will face if House Republicans only agree to an immigration reform plan that forecloses (or effectively forecloses) on the possibility of eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants. What will Democrats do if the best outcome they can offer the 11 million is legal status -- freedom from the fear of deportation -- but permanently unequal status in the United States?

As happy as Republicans are to jam Democrats whenever they can, though, they find themselves on the horns of a more serious dilemma. Actually, they're on the horns of two different dilemmas simultaneously. In fact, a decent alternative title to the recently released House GOP immigration reform principles would be "We Face Some Tremendous Immigration Reform Dilemmas."

As expected, the Republican plan contains no eventual citizenship guarantee, which means they're unprepared at this time to support a plan that explicitly contemplates allowing the 11 million to become voting citizens. Democrats are happy with the principles insofar as they nudge the process ever so slowly along, but a reform bill that precluded citizenship or erected severe roadblocks to citizenship would create obvious tension between Democrats and advocacy groups fighting for a citizenship guarantee. It might even create tension between actual immigrants (many of whom would be thrilled to eliminate the threat of deportation) and the groups organizing on their behalf, who oppose a half loaf like permanent legal status for a mix of principled and parochial reasons.

"Half-measures that would create a permanent class of non-citizens without access to green cards should be condemned, not applauded," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in response to the Republican principles. "Until we create a functioning immigration system with a pathway to citizenship, ruthless employers will continue to exploit low wage workers, pulling down wages for all. All workers, immigrant or not, will see workplaces become safer and wages grow higher when we create a real road map to citizenship. And yet Republicans not only reject citizenship but embrace a broken guest worker model that will bring down wages and increase income inequality."

So its a little awkward.

But compare it to the complications the immigration reform process creates for Republican leaders. It's news to no one that comprehensive immigration reform severely divides conservatives. The donor class supports it. Political pragmatists support it. But activists are heavily skeptical. For that reason GOP leaders crafted their principles to narrow the gap between the base and everyone else.

But Republican leaders didn't get into the immigration reform game just to appease corporate donors and party moderates. They got into the game to appeal to actual immigrants. And immigrants don't support immigration reform because of the exciting opportunities it'll create for big employers. They support it because they want to live in the country unpersecuted, and expect Republicans to be a more welcoming, less xenophobic party than they are. The problem is, the GOP can't engage in coalition management without exposing the underbelly that disgusted minority voters in the first place.

And yet here's the principle governing the GOP's approach to "individuals living outside the rule of law":

There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law. Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. Finally, none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.

This doesn't explicitly preclude citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But it reveals an extraordinary reluctance to welcome them out of the shadows. Pay back taxes, pay future taxes, but access no public benefits. Oh, and the government might renege on legal status in a couple of years anyhow, in which case you're all completely screwed. (As a side note, the principles also underscore the GOP's moral fixation on programs that benefit poor people -- no food stamps or Medicaid, but presumably relatively affluent immigrants would still be able to deduct their mortgage interest from their taxes.)

Again, as punitive and inhospitable as this arrangement would be, it might actually constitute a quality-of-life improvement for millions of people. And so it might just be where Congress ends up. But by being conspicuously less generous to immigrants than the Democratic plan proposes, it loses a ton of value as an entreaty to immigrants -- who will, of course, turn right around and ally with Democrats to lock in a citizenship guarantee. That might be worth it if the plan simultaneously satisfied hard-liners. But …

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If Republican leaders were serious about doing immigration reform anyhow, the sensible thing to do would be to ditch the vindictive crap and just pass something like the Senate bill. But the elephant in the room here is that even pragmatic Republicans are nervous about the prospect of creating millions of new voters, the majority of which would probably be Democrats. And that augurs poorly for Republicans passing anything this year at all.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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