The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Steve King’s important insight

GOP Rep. Steve King, who lives in perpetual fear of cantaloupe-sized calves trooping over the border, offers his latest expression of shock and horror at the shifting ground beneath his feet:

“Last year, almost everybody in my conference would have agreed with me on this immigration issue,” King told CNN’s “New Day.” “And this year, it seems as though after the presidential election, a spell’s been cast over a good number of Republicans, and they seem to think the presidential election was about immigration.”

As I noted earler, it’s crazy that so much attention gets lavished on King while House GOPers who are seriously entertaining reform mostly go ignored. But in this case, King’s quote contains an important insight about the current debate.

When King says that only a year ago virtually all Republicans would have agreed with him on immigration, in broad strokes policy terms he is absolutely right. Remember, it was only last year that the eventual GOP standard bearer in the 2012 presidential election declared that the solution to the immigration problem was “self deportation.” This continues to go under appreciated, but most Republican lawmakers have been entrenched for literally years now in the position that any kind of legal status for undocumented immigrants — no matter what the conditions — would constitute rewarding lawbreakers, and is therefore unacceptable. Whatever the role of nativism in driving this, the refusal to accept “amnesty” has for a very long time been a near sacred position for GOP officials and their voters, one intimately bound up with deep cultural and moral undercurrents for conservative voters.

As frustrating as this position can be, we need to take it seriously when assessing the current state of play. What this means is that, when House Republicans do grapple with the core question of what to do about the 11 million and treat it as a policy problem genuinely worth addressing, it’s not nothing. Yes, it’s true that too few Republicans have done this so far to create grounds for believing that comprehensive reform has a good chance in the House. But some genuinely have. And this is progress of a sort.

Indeed, you can see the difference between House Republicans who are seriously engaging the issue and those who aren’t. Regular readers already know who’s in the first camp. In the latter camp are Republicans like Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, a key member of the GOP leadership. He is under pressure to get serious about the issue, but this is the best he can come up with:

“First we need a [secure] border and then we need to deal with high-skilled and then guest workers and to create an environment where you can get to the next question,” Roskam said in the interview. “An overwhelming majority of Americans say, ‘I just want to get [immigration] fixed. Show me a thoughtful direction and a thoughtful plan to get that done and I’m willing to hear you out and follow along.’ ”

The key question remains whether Republicans who are grappling with the issue publicly will genuinely push for action this fall, or are merely making nice noises to bide their time before letting reform quietly die. Roskam’s quote is what it looks like when Republicans are in the latter camp.

But as long as some Republicans are seriously engaged on the need to do something about the 11 million, reform is not completely dead. As King suggests, for those Republicans who are seriously engaging, this represents a major change. I remain pessimistic about reform’s chances. But King is right to take note of the shifts we’re seeing, and he’s also right — given the universe he inhabits — to be afraid of them.