As unbelievable as it sounds, Congress is actually taking real steps to (at least attempt to) engage in a debate that has for decades often been nothing more than a political talking point: “comprehensive” immigration reform (and by that, I mean a plan that includes a path to full citizenship for all or nearly all illegal immigrants in the country). Democrats have long been pushing for an easy path to citizenship, but Republicans have so consistently opposed such proposals (even the popular DREAM Act) that the debate over immigration reform often simply amounted to mere ideological posturing; that is, until now.
It has always been quite clear that the Democrats’ support for a path to citizenship was and is heavily motivated by a simple political desire: to secure the lion’s share of support from the several million new voters that such a law would create. After all, what former illegal immigrant-turned-citizen would not vote for the party that fought ardently to forgive said person’s illegal entry into this country? Indeed, such an influx of new Democratic voters, coupled with the associated increase in support from the rest of the Hispanic population (illegal immigrants of course come from many non-Latin American countries, but the overwhelming majority come from Central America) – many of whom have a vested if not familial interest in the issue of immigration reform – would effectively lock the “Hispanic vote” up in the Democratic camp for the foreseeable future similarly to how we now see the “Black vote” almost unquestionably Democratic.
Now of course the GOP would also like to tap into the growing Hispanic voting demographic. But why the sudden increase in willingness (widespread but by no means universal within the party) to consider comprehensive immigration reform? Mitt Romney can tell you the answer to that one: he only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote last November after firmly opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and being generally seen as a hardliner on the issue. Following such a poor showing among Hispanics, and also considering their growing electoral demographic, the party elite basically came to the conclusion in the past few months that the GOP needed to bite the bullet and shove some sort of immigration reform bill through Congress so as to have something positive to show to Hispanic voters.
But isn’t this just politics at its worst? Look at the immigration reform debate currently raging in Congress: Republican congressional leaders are desperately scrambling for as many swayable GOP legislators as possible to avoid looking like the party that opposed a sweeping reform bill that passed anyway (or of course even worse: the party that killed the bill). Beyond this though, the GOP brand now finds itself in a no-win situation: to avoid (no pun intended) alienating its base the party legislators cannot be seen as too eager to pass an immigration bill, but basically anything less than full-throated support for a path to citizenship amounts to a net win for the Democrats (who at this point can just sit back and watch the GOP pull its hair out and then just vote with almost full party support for whatever bill ultimately comes before the floor that is not too water-downed). This leaves an awkward and half-willing legislative push as the only feasible political option for the GOP, and frankly even such an approach only serves to cut the GOP’s losses here. Who are Hispanic voters to whom immigration reform is a critical issue (naturally, including those who only gained the right to vote via the reforms) going to vote for: the party that has almost unequivocally supported some sort of path to citizenship for illegals for as long as the debate has existed, or the party that grudgingly allowed a heavily limited immigration reform bill to grind through Congress against sharp criticism from many of its legislators?
However, this isn’t just a problem for the GOP – it’s a problem for the entire immigration reform debate that ruined said debate before it even began. It is readily evident that an honest and sound debate cannot occur in Congress when (ultimately, at least) one of the primary effects of a bill is to inject millions of new voters into the electorate. Indeed, as we can see from the current congressional debate, such a bill effectively leads to unspoken attempted vote-buying. The opportunity to give a large bloc of people who currently live in the shadows a general path, even a lengthy and arduous one, to citizenship and all associated voting rights means that the issue cannot be fairly considered from the proper angles of improving the welfare of illegal immigrants and the welfare of the nation as a whole; instead, both parties are tempted by (and by all measures seem to be indulging in) a perverse incentive to pass comprehensive immigration reform in order to get more votes. If, perhaps, illegal immigrants could be offered a general path to permanent residency (i.e., the green card, which does not give the permanent resident the right to vote in federal elections) instead of citizenship, then a vastly more robust and truthful debate could be had on the issue. But since such a serious congressional proposal is extremely unlikely, due to the fear of being seen as wanting second-class citizenship for illegals, it seems that we will unfortunately continue to have a national immigration reform debate driven not by concern for people or principles, but for politics.