GOP turns pro-immigration reform

There has been much discussion in the media and among politicians, activists and pollsters about the speed at which public opinion has changed on same-sex marriage, even on the right. But equally startling is the speed with which Republicans in key leadership roles have embraced comprehensive immigration reform.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush-AP Photo/El Nuevo Herald, Hector Gabino

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (Hector Gabino/Associated Press)

Certainly not everyone is on board on the right. Cranky dead-tree magazines and their Web incarnations still churn out objections to any realistic immigration-reform measure. There are some talk show hosts who rail about letting 11 to 12 million people remain here. And there are some pols who think they can go right on this issue and carve out a niche with primary voters. But if one looks at the Gang of Eight, GOP leadership in the House (where a reform bill is also in the works), prominent conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a number of GOP governors, the “new normal” for mainstream conservatives seems to have shifted from border security only to legalization with border security triggers.

A diverse group of conservatives including anti-tax maven Grover Norquist and the American Action Forum, as well as the Hispanic Leadership Network (a group former Florida governor Jeb Bush supported,) are working on generating public support for the Gang of Eight and getting ready to launch a pro-immigration reform ad campaign.

Pro-immigration reform conservatives are no longer willing to cede that the conservative position on immigration is exclusion and “self-deportation.” Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, told me the anti-reform advocates’ claim to be supporting “law and order” is misguided. He said, “Conservatives believe in the rule of law as a foundation for a free society in which individual effort generates personal merit and social advance. Clinging to a broken set of immigration laws for sole exclusionary purposes harms the advance of those principles, and hurts the country. It is not a conservative goal.” As an economist, he argues that support for free markets and a thriving economy necessitates immigration reform. He said, “We need a legal immigration system that reflects the needs of our economy. We have conservative members of Congress working to ensure that the bipartisan legislation does just that.”

There is a tendency in politics to overestimate the power of the status quo. Because each party has settled into battle lines on an issue, it is hard to imagine either side picking up stakes and readjusting the debate. But it does happen.(Consider President Bill Clinton’s embrace of free trade.)

Those who thought Republicans could never abandon opposition to immigration reform are, I would suggest, victims of the right-wing echo chamber and too enamored of sloganeering (“rule of law”). If they had been critically analyzing our current system, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) characterized as “de facto amnesty,” they might have seen how fragile is the ostensible premise for their anti-immigration reform position. Moreover, immigration reform opponents did not fully appreciate the degree to which a presidential loss (two in a row, actually) can have as a liberating effect on a party, generating receptivity to innovation.

Immigration reform is a long way from getting done. The greatest threat comes not from the right but from the White House and far left, which are intent on delinking border security from legalization and thus undermining conservative support for reform. But whether immigration reform succeeds or falters, the GOP will be able to lay claim to being just as committed to immigration reform as the Democrats. This effort was jump-started by Republican superstar Rubio; and that suggests that he personally and Republicans more generally can grab substantial credit if something passes.

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