Playing to the base

The Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives said Wednesday that the House will not vote on the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. With that they have probably killed any chance of meaningful reform until after next year’s midterm elections.

In the process, they may also have further alienated the very people they should be courting. Did they not notice that the growing clout of Hispanic voters was a crucial part of Barack Obama’s re-election?

The Senate bill starts with provisions to bolster border security. They include adding 3,500 Border Patrol agents, deploying the National Guard to build fences and checkpoints, and the creation of a security plan to achieve 100 percent surveillance of the border with Mexico and stop 90 percent of illegal border crossings.

It also allows more visas for highly skilled workers and specific additional exemptions for professors, researchers, executives and athletes. It would permit up to 200,000 low-skilled workers, primarily for agriculture and construction, tighten rules on allowing family members to join immigrants in the United States, and expand the use of the E-Verify system for employers.

All of that has broad support. As the Denver Business Journal reported in June, Colorado ski resorts, hotels, builders and the high-tech sector all struggle with the current system. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet told the Journal, “There is not a corner of the state where I have not heard how the broken immigration system that we have is a burden on Colorado businesses.”

The Senate bill was the product of the so-called Gang of Eight, four Republican senators and four Democrats, including Bennet. The full Senate passed the bill 68-32, a more than two-thirds majority. All 54 members of the Democratic caucus (which includes two independents) supported it, as did 14 Republicans.

Nonetheless, it appears it will not get so much as a hearing in the House. The reason is that besides the features enhancing border security and smoothing the way for foreign workers, the Senate bill includes a path to citizenship, which critics dismiss as amnesty.

In fact, the path outlined in the bill is anything but easy or quick. It would grant “registered provisional immigrant status” to immigrants already here six months after the bill’s passage if they got here before 2012, have been here continuously since, have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, pay a $500 fine – and if the Department of Homeland Security has developed border security and fencing plans. Those with provisional status can then apply for a green card and permanent resident status after 10 years – if they have they have kept their record clean, been in the country continuously, paid another $1,000 fine, met work requirements and learned English.

That is not enough for House Republicans. They are appealing to the most die-hard members of their base, many of whom oppose any accommodation whatsoever of the estimated 11 million immigrants now in the United States illegally, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic.

House Republicans can take that position in part because so many of them are from districts where the only real electoral threat is a primary challenge from the right. But we elect presidents in statewide votes, and few states are that solidly Republican, especially not the big ones. And, in many of those states, the Hispanic population is large, young and growing. The 2010 census showed about a quarter of Americans younger than 18 are Latino.

The House Republicans may think they will score points back home, but so casually dismissing a demographic so crucial to their party’s future is political malpractice.

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