Here’s What a Republican Immigration Victory Looks Like

Fawn Johnson

The most succinct way to describe how nervous Republicans will vote on a bill that would give millions of unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship comes from a Democrat, former Rep. Bruce Morrison of Connecticut, a onetime chairman of the House Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee.

“This is all about Republicans who could vote for this, and might not: whether they’re persuaded that there is enough pain and enough enforcement [to vote yes]. There’s no meter that says it’s just right,” said Morrison, who now represents the engineering association IEEE-USA, which is heavily involved in Congress’s immigration-reform debates.

It almost doesn’t matter whether negotiators get the enforcement metrics right. Republicans simply need to fight tough enough to justify walking away if they don’t get what they want. And getting a significant boost in border security and enforcement is about the only way they will be able to justify an otherwise unpleasant vote to give legal status to lawbreakers. Ideally, if the new policy makes it almost impossible for undocumented immigrants to work or live in the U.S., skittish lawmakers might never have to deal with this problem again.

In the Senate, where at least half of the 46 Republican votes are up for grabs, negotiators are preparing an amendment that would significantly boost the number of border agents and resources for enforcement well beyond the levels proposed in a comprehensive measure currently under consideration. No illegal immigrant would come near citizenship until those resources and agents are deployed.

The heavily gerrymandered House is a tougher nut to crack. Republicans know they will face flak from conservative constituents if they vote for any overhaul that legalizes the undocumented. Their worst fear is a primary challenge from the right, which few members can afford.

GOP supporters of legalization argue that the party’s collective political future is at risk if they vote against immigration reform. Any Republican who wants a national profile can’t ignore the low opinion that most Hispanics have of their party. “It’s tough to compete for their votes or enter the discussion if they think you don’t like them,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the “Gang of Eight” sponsors of the big Senate bill that includes a path to citizenship. But, Flake acknowledged, “there is a group that doesn’t believe” Republicans are danger of losing the vast majority of Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future if they vote no.

Many Republicans don’t care. They don’t have national ambitions and face nothing but political seppuku in their conservative districts if they vote for legalization. They would be happier if the issue just went away. In the Senate, that’s not possible. A vote on final passage is slated for next week. In the House, however, leaders are crafting a piecemeal approach that will allow Republicans to vote in favor of tough enforcement and, if they choose, also reject legalization. If they wind up having to take a tough vote on legalizing the undocumented, by God, they want to get something in return.

Here are their demands: They want solid border-security targets written directly into the law, such that the federal government can’t get around them. They want people who overstay their visas to be deportable. They want state and local police to get in on the enforcement game, noting that traffic cops outnumber federal immigration agents on the streets. Their constituents trust their local police force far more than they trust the Obama administration.

“There’s already a lot of evidence that what we’re doing is increasing government authority in a way people don’t like, and not doing it in a way people do like,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the Senate bill.

Senate gang member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is far more immigrant-friendly than FAIR, is saying similar things. The only difference is that FAIR wants the bill to die, while Rubio and some other Republicans are trying to make its enforcement provisions tough enough so that skeptical members of their party can feel comfortable voting for it.

The Congressional Budget Office helped the GOP cause this week by projecting that the Senate bill would decrease the net annual flow of unauthorized immigrants by a mere 25 percent. That means the U.S. would still have to deal with as many as 300,000 new undocumented immigrants per year if the bill is enacted, a far cry from its authors’ claims that the measure would slow the illegal influx to a trickle. The amendment under consideration is designed to fix that.

In the House, the first immigration proposal that passed the Judiciary Committee would give local police the authority to apprehend and detain people for federal immigration violations. Democrats hate it, saying it would provoke racial profiling. But Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and his GOP colleagues insist the provision is essential because the federal government has repeatedly fallen down on enforcement.

Democrats fear that GOP demands will end up killing the broader immigration overhaul. Rank-and-file Republicans would be just fine with that. “Republicans would like there to be more recognition that the law was broken,” said William Beach, chief economist for Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, which is led by one of the loudest opponents of the Senate bill, Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “They don’t want to vote for it, but they are afraid of being seen as anti-immigrant.”

Beach predicts that the CBO estimates will provide the solid ground for conservatives who want to walk away but don’t want to be labeled as racists or isolationists (while they conveniently ignore the other part of the CBO finding that the new legal residents would provide an economic benefit). If Democrats walk first, all the better. But, for Republicans, the second best thing would be to be able to tell constituents the flow of illegal immigrants is coming to an end—even if there is still no way to guarantee that.