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After Cantor’s loss, where does immigration reform stand?

There is certainly a difference of opinion as to whether immigration reform took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). His loudest advocates on talk radio sure think it did, but they don’t have much of an explanation as to why Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other central players in the immigration reform fight are having little problem coasting through.

Some of Cantor’s right-wing opponents insist that immigration was only one factor, more a symbol of right-wing discontent and grievances over insufficient attention to his district than the determining factor in his defeat. (“Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman. The Tea Party and conservatives capitalized on that with built up distrust over Cantor’s other promises and made a convincing case Cantor could not be trusted on immigration either. By trying to be both a Virginia congressman and a worthy successor to the Speaker in K-Street’s eyes, Cantor made it easy for conservatives to mount an under the radar case against him.”) Whether you agree with the indictment from the right wing or not (I do not), the evidence of overwhelming anti-immigration fervor in Cantor’s district is missing. Polling shows that even Republicans in his district favor immigration reform.

Immigration reform proponent Grover Norquist argues that immigration reform didn’t do in Cantor, citing the ease with which other pro-immigration proponents have sailed through. (“If the narrative hardens that that’s what it was about, then it could spook people and put off a vote that might otherwise happen in next month. If people are convinced, No, that wasn’t what it is, then it won’t have any effect at all. . . . It didn’t happen in [House Speaker John] Boehner’s district. It didn’t happen in other House districts. Paul Ryan is very strongly, emphatically pro-immigration reform and doesn’t have these sorts of challenges.”)

What is clear is that you can’t be for immigration reform, reverse course late in the game and refuse to defend your initial support. As on entitlement reform, it doesn’t pay to be tentative; that only invites critics on both sides to attack you.

In the short run, however, immigration reform will be a very, very tough move this year. That is true not only because of Cantor’s defeat but also because the Veterans Affairs scandal, the Bergdahl debacle and the upcoming rate hikes for health care under Obamacare are likely to suck up all the oxygen. Republicans will want to focus on what unites them and enrages the public, not what is a heavy haul and divisive in the party.

But in the long run it is a different story. Ambitious Republicans can read polls, and there the evidence is overwhelming: Opposition to immigration reform is a loser.

This week the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution put out a survey finding: “Consistent with findings from March 2013, majorities of self-identified Democrats (70%), independents (61%), and Republicans (51%) continue to favor a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. Notably, Republicans are roughly three-times more likely than Democrats to favor identifying and deporting all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally (30% vs. 11%).” Moreover, “Today, Americans are equally as likely to believe that illegal immigration helps the economy by providing low-cost labor (45%) as they are to say that it hurts the economy by driving down wages (46%). In March 2013, a majority (56%) of Americans said that illegal immigrants negatively impact the economy by driving down wages.” On the economic front, immigration reform proponents seem to be getting through:

Seven-in-ten (70%) Americans now say that immigrants coming to the country today mostly take jobs Americans do not want, while only 22% say they take jobs away from American citizens. Last year, Americans were somewhat less likely to say immigrants are taking unwanted jobs (64%).

Candidates who oppose immigration reform do worse even among Republicans than those who do not:

Fifty-three percent of voters say they would be less willing to vote for a candidate who opposes immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally. Only 16 percent say they would be more likely to support a candidate who opposes immigration reform, while 30 percent say that a candidate’s position on this issue would make no difference to their vote.
Even among Republican voters, opposing immigration reform carries more political risk than benefit. Nearly half (46%) of Republican voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposes immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, while 21% say they would be more likely to support such a candidate. Three-in-ten (30%) Republican voters say it would not make a difference to their vote either way.

Meanwhile, The Post reports today:

Sixteen Republican pollsters, including several who have polled for tea party figures and groups, helped conduct national surveys for a pro-immigration reform group and conclude in a memo being released Wednesday that embracing reform, including a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, “generates a more positive electoral environment for Republicans.” . . . In a memo shared with Post Politics, the pollsters write that nearly half (49 percent) of Hispanic voters blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass reform and more than three in four (76 percent) say they would be more likely to listen to what Republicans have to say on other issues if they support reform.
They also write that the proposed terms of a path to citizenship embraced by reform advocates should assuage fears that it amounts to “amnesty.”

In sum, immigration reform remains a policy and political winner for the GOP. But it won’t get done unless advocates are as determined and prepared as the small band of immigration reform opponents. They have to pierce phony labels and talk specifics (e.g. border security, requirements to learn English and pay fines); when they do so, support for immigration reform soars.

If not in 2014, immigration will be front and center in 2016; it is unavoidable. Democrats will certainly want to talk about it, and it behooves Republicans to prepare their own version of immigration reform and make the case for it in pro-growth terms.

UPDATE: Among the GOP pollsters’ findings: “Seventy-six percent say they would be more likely to listen to what Republicans have to say on other issues if they support immigration reform. Hispanics say the Republican Party has decent ideas like lowering taxes, helping small business, and improving the schools, but it is hard to support them because they seem too unwelcoming to immigrants and Latinos.” Moreover, Hispanics are amenable to the type of solutions Republicans have supported: “At least three-fourths of Hispanics support each of the parts of the immigration reform proposal, including 76 percent for a visa tracking system, 77 percent for an e-verify system for employers, 78 percent for stronger border security, and 90 percent for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status if they pass a background check, pay a fine and taxes owed, have a job, and learn English.” Among all voters, support for immigration reform remains high: “There is broad support for the immigration reform and border security proposal that was put forward. Republicans showed significantly higher support for the proposal than either Democrats or Independents, with more than 75 percent of Tea Party Republicans, conservative Republicans and white evangelical Republicans all supporting it. . . . Potential overall support for a Republican candidate for Congress jumps nearly 20 points after voters learn that the candidate supports this legislation, including large movement with swing voters like moderates, single voters, Independent women and younger voters. Further, these GOP candidates’ conservative and partisan bases remain intact after learning of the candidate’s support for the proposal.”