By Gary Endelman
We tend to forget it now, and so do they, but the Republican Party was born in protest. The political expression of the Northern revulsion against the Dred Scott decision, the GOP embodied an aggressive nationalism that helped to usher America into the modern era. For some time now, there has been a civil war within the GOP over immigration between those who viewed immigrants as an asset to be maximized versus those who saw it as a problem to be controlled. There are historical antecedents for both camps. The pro-side can look back to Theodore Roosevelt, the first modern Republican president who was an outspoken advocate for the immigrant masses of the early 20th century while the nativist wing finds their ancestral justification in 1924 Immigration Act whose purpose and effect was to go back to the America of 1890 before the tsunami of Jewish and Catholic migration.
More recently, it seemed as if the “compassionate conservative” advocates would win. President Ronald Reagan signed the IRCA amnesty into law; President George H.W.Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990 that tripled the number of employment-based immigrant visas; President George W. Bush was the first President to speak in favor of immigration reform in a nationally televised address from the Oval Office. Wait, there is more. Remember Senator Orrin Hatch who introduced an earlier version of the Dream Act or Senator John McCain who crossed the aisle to work with the late Senator Edward Kennedy to bring about comprehensive immigration change ?
No longer. As the economy deteriorated, the housing market collapsed, unemployment soared, banks stopped lending, and Wall Street stood on the precipice of ruin, the vision, compassion and courage necessary to embrace an enlightened immigration policy vanished. In its place came cries to “take our country back!” . Now that is an odd phrase- back from whom? Fear and loathing stalked the halls of Congress- defund the USCIS; safeguard the border; resist any attempt to bring the undocumented in from the shadows. These are the rallying cries of America in the age of the Tea Party uprising. Only those who go hard right can survive. The same McCain who once proudly claimed pride of authorship for CIR made television commercials in his desperate and successful effort to turn back the primary challenge of radio talk show host J.D.Hayworth that featured the repentant reformer telling his law enforcement buddies that Uncle Sam had to hurry up and “build the dang fence!” Robert Bennett who had been known for decades as one of Utah’s most celebrated conservatives did not go hard right enough and he paid for his moderation by losing a primary challenge to the insurgent Mike Lee who coasted to a general election win. How about Orrin Hatch?The passionate avatar of the Dream Act now votes against his own creation.
Whatever the merits of any immigration proposal might be, the political realities now in the ascendancy are such that few, if any, Republican legislators in Congress will be foolhardy enough to vote for it, knowing that, if they do, a Tea Party primary challenge will most certainly await them at the next election cycle. Senator Lindsey Graham who sought to cobble together a bipartisan Senate consensus in favor of CIR faces precisely this uncertain fate in 2012; conscience on Capitol Hill may be precusor to a long winter in South Carolina.
In the short run, the victors in this internecine party warfare , may reap a political dividend but, over time, this is a formula for impotence and minority status. Just as the GOP won during the Roaring Twenties by closing the Golden Door through a national origins quota, the children and grandchildren of these despised immigrant newcomers turned against the Party of Lincoln and formed the bulwark of a New Deal coalition that won 5 straight presidential elections. The GOP is now repeating their historic mistake by alienating the fastest growing voting bloc in the nation. Will they pay a cost for their folly? Yes, but only if President Obama and the Democratic Party realize that forthright advocacy of immigration reform is not only good policy but winning politics Whoever captures the allegiance of the Spanish-speaking electorate will become the majority governing party for decades to come. If you doubt this, ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid whose unlikely survival was made possible through union ground troops and Hispanic voters. Joe the Plumber may sing the siren song of nativism, but America is becoming less male and less white. If the Republicans want to win,they cannot afford to throw away the electoral votes of California, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Do that and you are no longer a national party, limited to a regional redoubt in the South and inner mountain West. Even Texas, a solidly Red state where, save for isolated pockets of Democratic resistance, has now joined California as a majority-minority status. Write this down neighbor: Texas goes Democratic in two generations as more voters in the Rio Grande Valley exercise the franchise.
You know the funny thing? The Republicans do not know they have a problem and the Democrats do not see their opportunity. Stay tuned.