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The (Real) Reason Why the House Won’t Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Christopher Parker

It’s been a year since the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill. George and Jeb Bush and Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham support it. Conservative public intellectuals such as David Brooks, Grover Norquist, and Karl Rove also support it, as well as more than 100 conservative economists, the Wall Street Journal and the CATO Institute. Comprehensive immigration reform enjoys a level of popularity that should make it a win-win for all involved. Still, House Republicans refuse to support it — even though the Senate recently passed a bipartisan bill with which many conservatives are satisfied.

With every reason to pass comprehensive immigration reform, why are House Republicans standing in its way? Many claim that the Senate bill amounts to amnesty, a measure they suggest leaves us no better off than we are now. They stress securing the border and expelling the 11 to 12 million “illegal aliens” residing in the United States.

House Republicans argue that the Senate bill amounts to nothing more than a breach of the rule of law – a foundational conservative tenet.  But something beyond ideology drives House Republicans’ resistance to comprehensive immigration reform.

Let’s review the case against comprehensive immigration reform from the House GOP’s perspective.

They argue that the conservation of law and order requires the following. First, the 11 million “illegal aliens” must be expelled. To do what the Senate bill suggests, and legalize the undocumented six months later, amounts to amnesty rewarding criminal behavior. Second, legalization is accompanied by nominal preconditions. However, House Republicans complain that the fine imposed by the Senate bill, at $2K, isn’t enough. According to their calculations, it’ll only amount to $7 per month, and can be waived. Third, House Republicans also contend that the requirement to pay back taxes will be difficult to enforce. Fourth, the criterion for passing the criminal background check has a major loophole. It seems that some “illegal aliens” will be eligible for legal status even if they’ve been convicted of a felony—albeit one that was ultimately plead down.  

Here’s the rub, though: In addition to prioritizing law and order, conservative doctrine also requires a commitment to fiscal responsibility. The Senate bill goes a long way toward addressing this need.

For starters, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill will save approximately $135 billion during the first decade of implementation, a figure that includes the cost of securing the border. The bill will also save taxpayers as much as an additional 685 billon in the ensuing ten years. That’s a savings of almost $1 trillion ($820 billion) over twenty years. Additionally, the CBO estimates that the Senate bill promises to reduce illegal immigration by at least one-third to one-half in the ten years following its enactment.

Conservatives not affiliated with the House embrace the legislation because it’s consistent with major tenets of conservatism.

Why, then, do many House Republicans oppose comprehensive immigration reform, as presented in the Senate bill?

It’s because House Republicans aren’t motivated by true conservatism. Rather, they represent constituencies haunted by anxiety associated with the perception that they’re “losing their country” to immigrants from south of the border.

The Republican Party is 89 percent white, and 97 percent of Republican House districts in the 113th Congress have white majorities. Moreover, 67 House Republicans won seats with the support of the Tea Party. And people who are highly identified with the Tea Party are anxious about Latino immigrants taking over “their” country. In some instances, Tea Party groups are leading the charge against comprehensive reform.

Nativism enjoys a strong presence in the Tea Party Caucus among House Republicans. Indeed, according to the most recent data gathered by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR), approximately 70 percent of the House Tea Party Caucus overlaps with the anti-immigrant House Immigration Reform Caucus.

Author

C

Christopher Parker

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Washington

If opposition to immigration reform is motivated by conservatives’ concern with law and order, as House Republicans claim, we should observe no differences between Tea Party and non-Tea Party conservatives in the mass public on immigration policy, but that’s not what’s happening.  

A national survey I conducted revealed significant discrepancies between Tea Party conservatives and non-Tea Party conservatives, especially when it comes to “illegal” immigrants and immigration policy:

  • When asked whether or not “restrictive immigration policies are based in part on racism,” 40 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives say that racism has something to do with restrictive immigration policy versus 18 percent of Tea Party conservatives.
  • Almost two-thirds (66 percent) of Tea Party conservatives want to eliminate birthright citizenship (part of the 14th Amendment) versus 46 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives — a 20-point difference.
  • Only 30 percent of Tea Party conservatives support the DREAM Act versus 50 percent of non-Tea Party conservatives, another 20-point difference.

It’s clear that Republican constituents are fraught with anxiety induced by the perception of a cultural threat. To verify this point, I probed how Tea Party identifiers felt about “illegal” immigrants’ presence in America. When asked about how they feel about “illegal aliens,” it turns out that 82 percent of Tea Party identifiers are either anxious or fearful of them.

This is the real reason why the House GOP refuses to pass the Senate bill: their constituents are anxious, even fearful that immigrants will take over the country.

If history is any guide, these discrepancies will have tangible consequences for the Republican Party.

In the early 1960s, the Republican Party faced a similar crisis in which the more moderate, mainstream wing of the party, led by George Romney, Richard Nixon, and Nelson Rockefeller, faced off against the reactionary wing, led by Barry Goldwater. We know the result: Johnson trounced Goldwater in 1964.

In the years that followed, the Republicans adopted a different strategy, one that included pursuing new constituencies: working-class, ethnic whites in cities of the “North” and white southerners. As a result, Nixon won the White House twice in the following years.

Like the GOP of the past, the current Republican Party needs to pursue a new constituency. Only this time the constituency it needs to win over aren’t “real” Americans, at least according to the Tea Party faction of the GOP.  In other words, the GOP needs to win over Latinos if it wishes to remain a viable party in the long run. However, recent public opinion suggests that Latinos reject House Republicans’ law and order approach to immigration.  For instance, only 13 percent of Latinos agree with the priority House Republicans place on securing the border first. Likewise, only 23 percent agree with the proposition that more immigrants should be sent to jail or detention centers.

If Republicans continue letting the Tea Party’s nativist politics lead its legislative agenda, it will lose an opportunity to help deliver comprehensive immigration reform to America. Given the demographic trends and popularity of this legislation, this failure could, in turn, cost Republicans the White House again in 2016 and cause them to lose even more seats in Congress than they did in 2012.

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