August 21, 2013

Dem Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an important player on immigration, has invited two key House Republicans — Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Frank Wolf — to participate with him in joint, bipartisan town hall meetings to discuss immigration reform, according to copies of the invitation I’ve obtained. They are here and here.

Wolf has declined, citing scheduling concerns, while Goodlatte has yet to respond, according to a source in Gutierrez’s office. The idea is to give Republicans a chance to demonstrate a sincere interest in finding a bipartisan solution on immigration. Will Goodlatte — who as Judiciary Committee chair wields considerable influence over reform’s fate — agree, or decline?

Goodlatte’s much-discussed quotes about immigration this week make this more important, because a joint town hall would give him a chance to clarify the stance he’s adopted: that he doesn’t support a “special pathway to citizenship.”

The political goals of Goodlatte’s “no special pathway” position, which has also been echoed by GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, seem clear enough: To appear willing to do something about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in a way that might prove acceptable to the GOP base. In policy terms, the idea, which Goodlatte has floated before, is that the 11 million would get provisional legalization, contingent on border security, but could only apply for citizenship through already-available channel, such as marrying a U.S. citizen or getting employer sponsorship. This lets Republicans say they are generally open to citizenship for the 11 million at some point while simultaneously arguing they don’t support the right’s dreaded “amnesty,” i.e. rewarding lawbreakers with special treatment.

Politically, you can look at this in two ways. Either it’s a clever way for Republicans to get to comprehensive immigration reform while maintaining anti-amnesty cred with the base. Or it’s a way to look interested in solving the problem while adopting a half-measure solution that Dems will never accept, killing reform, in hopes of winning the blame game later.

Either way, the problem with this idea is that, in policy terms, it’s pretty much identical to supporting what many Republicans have already supported: legalization without a path to citizenship, or sub-citizenship status for millions. And this isn’t the first half-measure Republicans have floated: the Kids Act, which would give citizenship only to DREAMers, is also intended to make Republicans look compassionate and serious about solving immigration without grappling with the actual problem.

But if the goal here is only to do solve the GOP’s political dilemma on immigration, that probably won’t work, either. Polls have shown that legalization-only has almost zero among Latinos, who overwhelmingly favor citizenship. At the same time, only a tiny fraction of Republicans supports this option; it doesn’t win over diehard GOP reform opponents, either. This position falls between two stools, and pleases nobody.

For another, Latinos won’t be fooled by this as a solution, either, says leading Latino radio host Fernando Espuelas — and neither will prominent Hispanic media figures.

“Anything less than a true path to citizenship will be rejected as something that does not fulfill the promise of immigration reform,” Espuelas, who hosts a national talk show on the Univision American Network, tells me. “If the next position taken up by Republicans is that there is no path to citizenship — that there will be a permanent underclass, and we do not value your contribution to society — there will be a wholesale rejection of the Republican position.”

Espuelas added that embracing half measures would render GOP efforts to distance the party from its Steve King wing useless. “To the extent that there will be a backlash, it will not be to extremists, but towards Republicans in general,” he said. “These kinds of approaches that essentially denigrate one segment of the Hispanic community will really be taken as an attack. It’s very much like the African Americans who will not vote for Republicans — that is what’s happening among Hispanics.”

“Underestimating the level of sophistication of the Hispanic voter is not a smart strategy,” Espuelas concluded. “If there is some sort of maneuver to try to disguise rejection of immigration reform, it will be perceived as such.”

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UPDATE: A Goodlatte spokesperson tells me that he will not be attending the joint town hall meeting with Gutierrez. “The chairman’s office received an invitation from Rep. Gutierrez late yesterday and his staff has regretted due to a prior commitment,” she emails.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.