No, immigration reform isn’t happening this Congress

November 25, 2013

President Obama gave a speech Monday in San Francisco calling on Congress to act on immigration reform! House Speaker John Boehner rejected the idea that immigration reform was dead  at a press conference late last week! Momentum! Spark!

Eh, maybe not so much. Why?  Because the underlying political realities in the vast majority of Republican-held congressional districts haven't changed a bit.

Check out this tremendous chart from National Journal's Scott Bland:


Image courtesy of Scott Bland

A little bit of math produces some eye-opening numbers. Of the 234 Republicans elected to the 113th Congress, 174 of them -- 74 percent -- represent districts with non-white populations under 30 percent.  Narrow that slightly and you find 112 members -- 48 percent of GOP members in the House -- who represent seats that have a non-white population of less than 20 percent. On the other end of that spectrum, just three House Republicans -- 1.2 percent -- hold seats where the non-white population is 70 percent or higher.

What those numbers make plain is that for the overwhelming majority of the Republican House majority voting in favor of any sort of broad (or even narrow) scale immigration reform proposal isn't good politics. At best, reforming immigration is not a top-of-the-mind priority for constituents in most of these districts. At worst, there is opposition to adopting changes that many people believe amounts to amnesty for the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S..

Obama said Monday that he has told Boehner not to "let a minority of folks block something that the country desperately needs." Of course, as these numbers make clear, it's not a minority but a strong majority of House Republicans who lack any real political incentive to make changes to the immigration laws on the books.

Yes, but, what about the good of the party some will ask. It is unquestionably true that if  future Republican presidential nominees cannot win more -- a LOT more -- than the 27 percent of the Hispanic vote that Mitt Romney took in the 2012 election, it will become increasingly difficult for the party to win a national majority. But, all but a handful -- Paul Ryan, we are looking at you -- of Republicans in the House have no national ambitions and instead are focused entirely on ensuring they do everything they can to be re-elected in 2014 and beyond.  Asking rank and file Members of the House to act on the supposed "greater good" of the party when that vote could endanger them in their own primaries come 2014 is essentially a non-starter.

All of which serves as a reminder of the Republican conundrum on immigration.  The party badly needs to re-make its image in the Hispanic community to broaden (or at least create the possibility of broadening) its electoral map in 2016 and beyond. But, its Washington wing -- particularly in the House -- see no incentive to do much of anything on immigration. And the Republican base -- you know, the people who tend to vote in presidential caucuses and primaries -- are the strongest opponents of changing current law on immigration.  Given those contradictions, doing nothing remains the most likely outcome.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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