Immigration Waterloo

So, the news of the day is that a bipartisan group of senators have a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. That's all to the well and good. This country needs a sensible immigration policy that allows for the legalization of those undocumented immigrants already in the country, and for a rational method for immigrants to come in legally.

Now, don't be mistaken: this Damascene conversion on the part of a few Republican senators is due more to the stranglehold that the Democratic Party has on immigrant voters, rather than to any true change of heart that maybe it would be a good idea to decriminalize 11 million US residents. One can be forgiven if the motivations of a party which has spent the better part of 30 years demonizing immigrants—especially Latino immigrants—are at best questionable now that it has seen the light. The immigration plan is so far merely a blueprint; much work still needs to be done before anything comes to a vote. But it is a sign that at the very least the leadership of the Republican Party realizes that if it is not to descend into the status of a rump regional party, it needs to do something to appeal to constituencies which are now firmly in the Democratic camp, and look to be so for the foreseeable future.

As a child of immigrants, I welcome this new development. It's the height of nationalist chauvinism to deny that this country—from its very founding—was built on immigration. Certainly the English colonists were not native born.

However, that chauvinism exists, and it is strong in today's Republican Party. And that chauvinism—even if the reforms make it through Congress—is what might make this process a Republican Waterloo.

One of the Tea Party planks is to "secure the border". Forget that President Obama has taken more steps to do just that than any previous modern President; to the Teabagger faithful, the southern border with Mexico is an open sewer, spilling out the refuse of the Latin countries into the pristine pastures of America. No amount of factual analysis will convince them that Obama and the Democrats want nothing less than the wholesale remaking of the United States as a culturally "Third World" nation. As TPM notes about any immigration effort in the House:
The House, whose members are more conservative and less threatened by a rising Latino vote than most statewide officials, is considered a much tougher climb for reform advocates. 
This is a House caucus dominated by the Tea Party, which has made scapegoating immigrants a major part of its belief system. And, at least in the short term, many of these Tea Party representatives are secure in their seats due to gerrymandering. Republican senators see the writing on the wall, as they have to compete statewide, not in discrete districts; but the base wants nothing other than a militarization of the US-Mexico border, expulsion of undocumented immigrants, and a severe curtailing of legal immigration. They feel that their culture and way of life faces an existential threat. A signature line I see on various comment boards is a variation of "Press 1 for English, Press 2 until you learn to speak English." (Sometimes I see them lovely substitution of "speak American" in place of "speak English", which is a wonderful commentary on our education system.) This fear of the Outsider has been a strain in American politics and society since the Republic's inception; it has become more pronounced and rabid since the election of the country's first black President, and the obvious and unavoidable logic of the nation's rapidly changing demographics. Such fear will not be assuaged by pronouncements from a commission of border state governors and attorneys general which will report on efforts to secure the border, whose recommendations will be solely advisory, with no power to affect policy.

The Tea Party, the creature created by the billionaire backers of the GOP, is the kingmaker in this immigration drama. As Rep. Steve Israel commented on MSNBC's "Jansing & Co." this morning:
Well, you know, Jackie Kucinich had it exactly right.... It's all about whether the House Republicans are willing to stand up to the Tea Party base... What it comes down to now is will these House Republicans who have pandered to their intolerant Tea Party base, who have fed into the extremism of the Tea Party base, are they willing to stand up to the Tea Party and do what's right for America.
My analysis? Immigration reform will pass, but only by the barest of margins, and only after the Republicans further alienate immigrant voters by the actions of the rabid Teabagger base. The radicals in the House will not make passage easy; passage, if it comes, will be a result of Democrats and a rump Republican caucus which is interested in avoiding a bloodbath come 2014 joining together and passing the Senate bill.

But the damage to the Republicans will be done. The credit for immigration reform will go to Obama and the Democrats. Republicans will be seen as being along for the ride, the few who do vote for it; for the most part, the actions of the Tea Party will paint the GOP as again the party which wants no immigration, legal or illegal. The only way that the GOP will be dislodged from the House will be to have another wave election as in 2006; the fights that Obama and the Democrats are picking, besides being aimed at enacting good policy for the country, are also aimed at rupturing what's left of the GOP coalition, weakening it sufficiently to be defeated, while keeping the Democratic base and commonsense independents excited to turn out for the midterms.

Some Republicans are jumping on the immigration reform train as one part of an effort to stave off an electoral Waterloo. But why should any constituency belittled and scapegoated by the right believe its good offices. Especially as Rush Limbaugh and other members of the Right's wurlitzer have pledged to stop "amnesty" in its tracks. The reform will pass, but the GOP will do itself no favors, thanks to the monster it created and no longer controls.

So, I welcome the few Republicans who now support immigration reform, even if they're only doing it out of fear of the coming tide. It will, however, do them no good politically, as too few will support reform, and those who oppose it will be the face of the GOP that the nation sees.