With Long History of GOP Support, Immigration Reform Is Different

One of the main reasons significant progress on immigration is still possible in coming months is the long history of Republican leadership and support of the issue. With support from Republican voters, important elements of the Republican coalition and many important Republican leaders, immigration reform does not resemble far more divisive issues like health reform and the budget.   A strong Senate framework , coupled with a few modest changes being discussed in the House, provides Republican Members of Congress a powerful legislative package that they should be able to take home and proudly sell to their constituents. 
Consider the following: 
National Republican Leadership – immigration reform has long been an issue championed by national Republicans.  Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and most recently 2008 Republican nominee John McCain were not just supporters of immigration reform, but national, spirited champions. 

Additionally the 2000 campaign of George W. Bush was the first American Presidential campaign to make extensive use of Spanish-language advertising and free media to reach a new generation of Hispanic immigrant voters.   It was in fact a Republican who pioneered these modern techniques, ones now being far more extensively deployed by Democrats than Bush’s successors.  
The most graphic example of this GOP leadership legacy this year came during the immigration reform debate in the U.S. Senate.  We witnessed a true bi-partisan legislative process, led by GOPers including McCain and Flake of AZ, and the final product passed with 68 votes, including 14 GOP Senators.   Few issues of significance in today’s Washington have seen this kind of comfortable, successful bi-partisan result. 

The Modern GOP Grew In Heavily Hispanic Parts of the United States – One of the reasons many national GOP leaders have been so supportive of immigration reform is that the modern GOP grew out of the Sun Belt, and the largest states in the Sun Belt – CA, FL, TX – have large immigrant and Hispanic populations.  
The first true conservative GOP Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, hailed from Arizona.  Nixon and Reagan came from California, the Bushes from Texas and John McCain from Arizona.  All in all 11 of the last 14 GOP nominees have come from AZ, CA and TX, giving these nominees and their Party great familiarity and comfort with the growing US Hispanic populations.  
Recent Polling Shows Immigration Reform Is Popular With Republican Voters  – An Americans for a Conservative Direction poll reported that 79% of Republican primary voters asked said it is “very important” to fix the current immigration system, with another 17% answering it is “somewhat important,” indicating 96% of what is arguably the party’s most devoted constituency think it is something Congress should address.

Furthermore, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings earlier this year found 53% of overall Republicans favor an earned path to citizenship, while 13% favor at least a path to legal residency.  A more recent survey by the PRRI showcases that a path to citizenship aligns with traditionally Republican values.  A strong majority of all Americans think immigration reform would benefit the economy by allowing illegal immigrants to pay taxes (84%), that illegal immigrants would work hard to earn citizenship (76%), and that they would only take jobs that Americans don’t want (64%).

This polling is consistent with polling on the issue going back to 2005.  There has been broad majority support for CIR, and deep support in the Republican Party itself, since this debate began almost a decade ago.   There is also, of course, passionate and deep opposition.  But it is a minority, even of Republican voters, in most polls. 
Large Parts of the Traditional GOP Coalition Support Immigration Reform –Unlike the current debates over Obamacare and the budget, large parts of the GOP coalition support immigration reform and want the GOP to work with the Democrats.   The Chamber of Commerce, High-Tech, Ag groups, anti-tax/pro-business leaders like Grover Norquist, Catholic and Evangelical leaders all support reform, and are aggressively lobbying their GOP representatives.   There are few other issues championed by President Obama that will ever attract this kind of broad-based support from traditional Republican groups.  
For years, the “divisiveness” of the immigration issue has been overstated.   There are few issues in Washington with such a bi-partisan history, and which enjoy so much support with voters of both parties.   The Senate gave the House a good bi-partisan framework to work from.   The House GOP has leaned into the issue much more than is understood right now, having passed five CIR related bills out of committee.  The House Democrats signaled their willingness to deal by grafting the House GOP’s border proposal onto their new CIR bill, HR 15.  And just this weekend we saw a House Republican, Rep. Jeff Denham, sign on to the House Democratic immigration bill, saying more of his colleagues would soon follow. 

While of course there is opposition coming from certain Republican circles, we are in fact closer to a deal today than any point since Senators McCain and Kennedy introduced their original legislation in 2005.
The current Senate/House bill gives House Republicans a lot to take home to their voters.  It grows the economy and reduces the deficit by a trillion dollars.  It strengthens border security and interior enforcement.  It invests in border infrastructure and adds more customs agents, allowing more job producing trade and tourism.  It makes our immigration skills-based and much more business friendly.   It helps resolve issues with visas for agricultural workers, something agribusiness has been clamoring for.   And the path to citizenship for the 11m undocumented immigrants is likely to be so arduous that those Republicans wanting to make sure they “don’t reward bad behavior” should be satisfied.  
When Republicans go home to make their case for why they voted to reform our antiquated immigration system, they know that while there are Republican voters and coalition partners who will decry them for taking this tough vote, there are far more voters, and far more powerful members of their coalition ready to reward their courage.   For after all, immigration reform has been as much a Republican as a Democratic issue over the past two generations of American politics.   And this history, and its legacy, is one of the main reasons we remain optimistic that Congress can overcome a nasty period and pass immigration reform in the months to come.