Here lies comprehensive immigration reform. Born: June 27, 2013. Died: (various). It died as it lived: constantly dying.
We’ve reached the point where even the most optimistic and fervently hopeful backers of comprehensive immigration reform have finally caved to the inescapable reality that no action will be taken by the Republican controlled House of Representatives this year. We’re too close to the election, and conservatives hold too much sway to allow anything to get through. The Senate-passed immigration bill will slip quietly into the hereafter, remembered as a beacon of bipartisan accomplishment that was slowly dulled by pointless GOP obstruction.
The good news for the immigration reform bill is that it will have some company in the political afterlife. The moment the Senate bill died, the celebrated Republican “rebrand” strategy also wheezed its last breath and is now taking the ol’ dirt nap. That strategy was laid out in the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project, popularly described as the RNC’s “autopsy” of the party’s miserable performance in the 2012 elections. Now that it too has died, we have the rare opportunity to perform an autopsy on an autopsy.
Fittingly, this story of agonizing slow-motion political death begins with Mitt Romney. Back during the 2012 Republican primaries, when Mitt was still trying to prove that he was sufficiently conservative, he proposed “self-deportation” as a policy for dealing with undocumented immigration. It was one of those quintessentially Romney-esque moments that dogged him throughout the campaign. When Mitt ended up losing the Latino vote by 44 points, Republicans realized that being the party of “self-deportation” was not a viable option.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus and some other GOP bigwigs put their heads together and came up with the Growth and Opportunity Project. The document made political and outreach recommendations that touched on a number of party weaknesses, but its primary purpose was to improve Republican performance with the Hispanic electorate. “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report concluded, taking a direct swipe at their one-time presidential standard bearer. The report made only one policy recommendation: embrace and pass comprehensive immigration reform. “If we do not,” the RNC warned, “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
It’s debatable that supporting immigration reform would really end up helping the GOP politically, but at the very least it wouldn’t hurt. And the Republicans are in such poor straits that a policy shift that doesn't actively alienate Hispanic voters could be counted as legitimate progress. Either way, when the report was released in March 2013, Republican enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform peaked. Conservative legislators who’d once favored revoking birthright citizenship as an answer to undocumented immigration were suddenly endorsing pathways to legalization.
The newfound Republican enthusiasm for comprehensive reform culminated in the passage of the Senate bill last June, which saw 14 Republicans join up with the Democratic caucus to give the legislation a healthy bipartisan glow. Sen. Marco Rubio helped shepherd the bill through Congress and defended it from attacks by conservative think tanks. The House had not reacted kindly to the Senate bill, but Priebus saw good things going forward. “I know the leadership in the House is committed to putting something pretty comprehensive together that's going to address the issue,” he told CNN. This was the high watermark for the Republican rebrand.
Almost immediately, the regression to old-fashioned nativist politics took hold. Rubio’s potential 2016 rivals very publicly announced their opposition to his bill. Rand Paul, after dropping hints that he’d support reform, realigned himself with the Tea Party and began beating the “border security” drum. Conservatives who’d once shared the GOP establishment’s concern over the party’s low Hispanic support reverted back to thinking that Republicans could win if they did a better job consolidating the white vote. Rubio, under fire from conservatives for his role in passing the Senate bill, backed away from the legislation and by October his staff was saying that the House should not pass comprehensive reform.
As the House dug in and conservatives came to dominate the Republican argument on immigration, support for comprehensive reform among establishment Republicans slowly became less and less ardent. Reince Priebus, who championed comprehensive reform and was optimistic that the House would follow the Senate’s lead, began wrapping his immigration remarks in layers of qualified language and meaningless filler.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform.” – Reince Priebus, June 2013
“I think that, in fact, the idea that either a comprehensive approach or a multi-tiered approach is not going to happen by the end of the year, I don’t think that that’s necessarily true.” – Reince Priebus, November 2013
“I would … caution you not to impose your definition of what comprehensive immigration reform is. There’s a general agreement that we need to have serious immigration reform, but I don’t believe there’s general agreement as to what that reform is.” – Reince Priebus, March 2014
“I think that if you look at -- you google Ted Cruz, you google Rand Paul and immigration, you -- what you'll find is that even Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have been out there publicly calling for serious immigration reform. And so, in fact, Rand Paul on March nineteenth went to the Hispanic Chamber and said we need comprehensive immigration reform. Those are his words, not mine. I think there is consensus that the immigration system is broken, but how to fix it is another issue.” – Reince Priebus, June 2014
As Priebus and his cohorts grew more guarded in their language, Republican legislators grew increasingly antagonistic towards the administration on immigration. With the GOP poised to make gains in the midterms, the party was reluctant to act on immigration and anger conservatives in the base. John Boehner and the House leadership declared that they could not find a way forward on immigration until they could trust President Obama, which was a long-winded way of saying “never.”
Republicans began demanding that Obama take a more aggressive stance on deportations and reverse his 2012 decision to defer deportations for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors. Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has done an excellent job chronicling the House GOP’s policy evolution on immigration to one of maximum deportations – or “get the hell out,” as he puts it.
Like comprehensive immigration reform, the “rebrand” was dead long before it died. You could argue that it was dead from the get-go. After years and years of beating the “amnesty” drum and whipping base voters into outrages over “anchor babies” and “birth tourism,” the Republican establishment abruptly shifted gears and said “wait, actually it turns out that pathways to citizenship are consistent with Republican values.” There was no way the conservative base – juiced up on Tea Party anti-establishment fury – was going to buy what they were selling. Critically, they lacked the support of conservative talk radio hosts, who accused the RNC of betraying conservative principles to chase votes.
Going by its own metrics, the “rebrand” failed spectacularly. It warned that if Republicans were viewed as being hostile towards the presence of Hispanic immigrants in the country, then it would hasten its own demographic demise. That counsel was ignored, and top Republicans are now calling for more deportations. The GOP establishment figures who backed comprehensive reform have waffled in the face of conservative opposition and, unwilling to upset the apple cart heading into the midterms, are quietly backing away. The party, which in 2013 stressed the need to shed the taint of “self-deportation,” has instead slid backwards and is now the party of just plain old “deportation,” leaving them worse off than when they started.