Republican Political Calculations On Immigration Reform: Complicated, And Contradictory

There are risks to Republicans in blocking immigration reform, but there are also incentives for them to block immigration reform. Getting past that contradiction to passage isn't going to be easy.


Over the weekend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been among the most vocal Republican voices for immigration reform in the Senate going back to the last immigration reform battle in 2007, warned his fellow Republicans that they risk a “demographic death spiral” if they try to stand athwart the effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws:

WASHINGTON — Republicans are “in a demographic death spiral” and will fail in their effort to win the presidency if the party blocks an immigration overhaul, a leading GOP senator said Sunday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who helped write a bipartisan immigration bill under debate in the Senate, said conservatives who are trying to block the measure will doom the party and all but guarantee a Democrat will remain in the White House after 2016’s election.

A Democrat also involved in developing the proposal, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, went a step further and predicted “there’ll never be a road to the White House for the Republican Party” if immigration overhaul fails to pass.

Meanwhile, one the proposal’s authors who is considering such a White House campaign refused again to pledge support for the measure without changes conservatives have demanded.

“The vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of conservative Republicans are prepared to support immigration reform, but only if we can ensure that we’re not going to have another wave of illegal immigration in the future,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

The Senate last week overcame a procedural hurdle in moving forward on the first immigration overhaul in a generation. Lawmakers from both parties’ voted to begin formal debate on a proposal that would give an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally a long and difficult path to citizenship.

The legislation also creates a low-skilled guest-worker program, expands the number of visas available for high-tech workers and de-emphasizes family ties in the system for legal immigration that has been in place for decades. It also sets border security goals that the government must meet before immigrants living in the U.S. illegally are granted any change in status.

“I think 95, 96 percent of the bill is in perfect shape and ready to go. But there are elements that need to be improved,” said Rubio, refusing to say if he’ll vote for the measure he helped write unless changes are made.

Republicans are demanding tougher border security measures and stricter standards for who qualifies for government programs such as Social Security and health care.

Rubio is trying to balance concerns from his party’s conservative flank that has great sway in picking a nominee with the political attempt to win over Hispanic and Asian American voters who overwhelmingly favored President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. Further complicating Rubio’s presidential aspirations, the Republican-led House is considering its own version of immigration proposals that more closely follow their own perspective, which hews toward tea partyers.

“After eight years of President Obama’s economic policies, and quite frankly foreign policy, people are going to be looking around,” Graham said. “But if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community in my view is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view.”

In 2012, Obama won re-election with the backing of 71 percent of Hispanic voters and 73 percent of Asian voters. A thwarted immigration overhaul could send those voting blocs more solidly to Democrats’ side in future elections. That has led some Republican lawmakers to support immigration reform, but the party’s conservative base still opposes any legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally.

As a preliminary matter, it’s worth noting that Graham’s words are likely to fall on deaf ears for many in the GOP. He’s been known, derisively, as Lindsey “Grahmn-esty” ever since he was working together with John McCain, the Bush White House, and Senate Democrats, to try to get the 2007 version of immigration reform through Congress. Since then, the right wing of the GOP has been aching to take a shot at him and, with his seat coming up in 2014 there has already been plenty of speculation about who might challenge him. Given the fact that South Carolina’s other Senate seat, formerly held by Jim DeMint, is now held by a solid conservative in the person of Tim Scott, it’s likely that any South Carolina Republicans who do want to run for Senate will be challenging Graham. So, don’t expect many Republicans to take Graham’s words to heart.

Of course, Graham isn’t  the only Republicans who has been warning the GOP about the consequences of blocking immigration reform. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have both been at the forefront of the effort to get the party to shift its position on this issue, typically using arguments from self-interest regarding the damage that doing otherwise would do to the GOP brand among Latinos in support of their position. More importantly, Senator Rubio has taken it upon himself to be the chief Republican and conservative face of the immigration reform movement in the Senate by signing on to the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill that the Senate is now considering. This has put Rubio in a political contentious position because it’s resulted in many on the right attacking him in the same way that Graham, McCain, and other Republicans were attacked in 2007 when they first took up the banner of immigration reform. Rubio has responded to this criticism by at least appearing to try to push the bill to the right to some degree, although it seems apparent that he still supports the “Gang of Eight” framework in general.

Brent Budowksy states fairly well the political calculus that Republicans must engage  in approaching the idea of immigration reform:

No decision is more important for the Speaker and the Republican Party than whether to make immigration reform the law of the land or whether the GOP House destroys the prospects for immigration reform in the current Congress.

If immigration goes down in the House, the chamber’s Republican majority could well go down in the 2014 elections. In the Senate so far, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) deserves high grades for his handling of immigration. Of course, Rubio has said some things I strongly disagree with, but I will cut him some slack as he tries to maneuver Republicans and the Senate toward a responsible position.


This is a test House Republicans could well fail. In the House, the final disposition of immigration will probably represent either Boehner’s finest hour or his greatest failure as Speaker. There is a kamikaze caucus of House Republicans that is determined to destroy true immigration reform.

In the end, the Speaker will have to stare them down within the Republican Conference and/or make a side deal with Democratic leaders to pass a bill that many Republican members will adamantly oppose. The political stakes are enormous.

House Democrats have already begun running television ads in districts represented by Republicans with large Hispanic populations. There are some Republicans with a demographic death wish who persist in alienating waves of female and Hispanic voters, and if they prevail, the Speaker’s gavel might well change hands after the 2014 elections.

I tend to disagree with Budowsky that blocking immigration reform would end up costing the GOP the House next year. Most assuredly, Democrats would use such an issue to try to generate support, and increase voter turnout, from Latino voters and others who tend not to show up for mid-term elections. However, given the GOP advantages that came out of the post-2010 Census redistricting and the fact that there are far fewer swing districts than there used to be, it seems unlikely to me that they’d be able to generate enough momentum to take back the House in an off-year election that is traditionally more favorable to the party not in control of the White House. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be 2014 consequences to blocked immigration reform, of course. It could end up being fatal to the GOP’s still unclear prospects of regaining control of the Senate for the third time in a row.

Given that there’s an arguably low risk of losing the House just over the issue of immigration, it becomes easier to understand why Republicans feel free to not get behind what, according to many polls, is a relatively popular piece of legislation even among Republicans. For one thing, if you’re a House Republican the odds are that you’re in a relatively safe Republican district where the odds of losing in a General Election are relatively low, especially over a low-priority issue like immigration reform. With that in mind, you’re going to be just as concerned about votes that may enrage the Republican base in your district as you are about ones that could damage you in a General Election, possibly even more concerned. Similarly, if you’re a Senator in a solid red state, you’re going to be more concerned about avoiding the fate of men like Dick Lugar and Robert Bennett than you are about whether your opposition to the Gang of Eight bill might cost you a few votes in a General Election you’re going to win handily anyway.  All of this political calculation may not exactly be a profile in courage, but it’s the way things happen all the time on Capitol Hill, and it suggests that it’s going to be hard for legislators like Boehner and Rubio to break the wall of resistance that seems to be forming among House Republicans to immigration reform in any form at all.

Beyond 2014, blocking immigration reform now likely means that we won’t see anything of significance pass on that issue for the rest of the Obama Administration. Republicans in the Senate and the House who might have Presidential ambitions are going to be reluctant to stick their necks out on an issue that is going to do nothing but arose the ire of the base that they’ll have to face in a Republican nomination fight. Democrats are going to be interested in using the issue to bash Republicans and generate Latino interest in the 2016 campaign, which they can safely do while at the same time appearing to be perfectly willing to consider an immigration reform bill that Republicans in the House and Senate will, of course, never put forward. Then, we’ll head into the 2016 campaign and rather than actually having solved out immigration problems, we’ll have created yet another political whipping horse that will most likely inure to the benefit of whomever happens to be the Democratic nominee that year.

So, yes, the GOP is risking political disaster by failing to get on board with immigration reform now, but looking at it rationally from their point of view it’s easy to see why they pretty likely don’t see that. Perhaps things will change if and when another Democratic President is being sworn into office on January 20, 2017.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Campaign 2014, Campaign 2016, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Caj says:

    Republicans don’t really want immigration reform. They want to spend the rest of their lives talking about how bad Latinos are and how they keep taking American jobs. If immigration reform was done whatever would they have left to talk about? The one and only reason some are maybe even thinking about it is because of 2016. They couldn’t give a flying fig about the Latino community as a people it’s all about garnering their vote come the next election. Voters of all colours and creeds are not stupid, and see Republicans for the sleazy, lying articles they are.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Perhaps things will change if and when another Democratic President is being sworn into office on January 20, 2017.

    I think it is already too late. Back in ’68 they decided to become the white peoples party and now that is all they are. Except they aren’t even the party of all the white people.

    I honestly don’t see how they can square this circle.

  3. Mercer says:

    “No decision is more important for the Speaker and the Republican Party than whether to make immigration reform the law ”

    The Obama campaign knew where the GOP was most vulnerable. The vast majority of their ads attacked the GOP as the party of the rich. Why is continued talk of plans to privatize Social Security and Medicare and further upper income tax cuts not what is most important for the GOP to rethink. Because the big donors love supply side economics and cheap labor. If GOP politicians want to be reelected they should ignore their big donors on immigration and privatizing Social Security.

    Most Latinos have lower incomes and so will benefit from Dem favored programs like Obamacare. They will vote Dem as long as the Dems offer them more. How would immigration “reform” change this? By increasing the supply of low skilled workers it will lower wages for low skilled workers of all races. This will make the cheap labor lobby happy and benefit Dem politicians since low income voters favor Dems. Lowering workers incomes benefits employers of but hurts GOP politicians because lower income voters are more likely to vote Dem.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    To broaden the argument, I really see no end to the GOP’s death spiral. They are a party stuck in the past, in a mythical America which never really existed but they can see it if the glasses are tinted rosily enough.

    Meanwhile, we have real and serious problems that we need to deal with and their prescription is, “There is no problem, and if there is a problem, it’s not our fault.”

    #1:The deficit, and no, lower taxes will not fix it.

    #2: Income inequality, and no, lower taxes will not fix it.

    #3: Global warming, and no, lower taxes will not fix it.

    #4: The War on Drugs, and no, lower taxes will not fix it.

    #5: Gun crime, and no, lower taxes will not fix it. (neither will more guns)

    #6: Health care, and no, lower taxes will not fix it.

    #7: Social Security, and no, lower taxes will not fix it. (the fix is actually so simple, we can’t have it)

    #8: Medicare, see #6.

    #9: Wall Street, and no, lower taxes will DEFINITELY not fix that.

    #10 Voter fraud, well we have so little voter fraud as to be non-existent but no, lower taxes will not fix that.

    Anybody else detecting a pattern here?

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    To elaborate a little further, the GOP base is virulently anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-global warming, anti-contraception, anti-tax, anti-science, anti-healthcare, anti-middle class, anti-poor, anti-Social Security, Anti Medicaid, anti-environment, anti-labor, anti-regulation….. the list is endless.

    What are they for???

    Pro-rich people, pro…… pro…… pro…… pro…pro…….pro….. GUNS!!!! Whew, I thought of something else.

    In other words, I foresee a permanent Republican minority.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:


    In other words, I foresee a permanent Republican minority.

    Beat you to it SD.

  7. Mark Ivey says:

    The Republican party is screwed.

    I was a Republican for almost 16 years, so i think my opinion on the current GOP has merit..

  8. David M says:

    However difficult the options are, passing reform is almost certainly better for a generic Republican, and even more so 10 years from now.

  9. steve says:

    However difficult the options are, passing reform is almost certainly better for a generic Republican, and even more so 10 years from now.

    Better how? Better in a general election, slightly, but potentially far worse in the primary if you piss off the Tealiban.

  10. steve says:

    mixed-race birth rates are exploding, something I’ve even noticed in the last few years in the rural deep south, in a town where a mixed race baby would have been a county-wide scandal 20 years ago.

    Keep on actin’ racist, GOP. As Nate Silver said on that fateful night last year, “On the wall, the writing.”

  11. steve says:

    You tend to lean, forever, for the party that was more popular just as you turned adult. Let’s say the bulge of GOP voters from Reagan’s popularity centers around people who turned 20 in 1984 when Reagan got 58.8% of the vote. That would make them 49 this year. They’re a large group and going to be around for a good 20 more years. The GOP can’t dump them, they’re too big, they’re the core of the party. Since FOX/Limbaugh program them to live in Conservative BubbleLand, they’ll be deciding the GOP primaries for the next few decades, and demanding candidates who talk all Benghazi Marxist Communist Tax Cuts Argle Bargle…

    So forget about reform. There’s no possibility of it. The GOP is screwed long-term.

  12. David M says:


    Better how? Better in a general election, slightly, but potentially far worse in the primary if you piss off the Tealiban.

    If the GOP passes immigration reform, a generic Republican candidate will probably be better off in most general elections. Whether specific GOP congresscritters are primaried by the far right racists loons is a separate issue.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    There is a problem that no one noted: for most US Hispanics, there is no such thing as Immigration Reform. There is another problem: family members that either face the risk of deportation or that can´t immigrate to the US.

    That´s not a matter of immigration reform: it´s a matter of MOM, DAD, GREATMOTHER, UNCLE. Rick Perry was spot on when he asked if these people had a heart.

  14. superdestroyer says:


    The cheap labor, open borders Republicans want immigration reform because it will lower the cost of labor in the U.S. (translation: median income in the U.S. will go down). It is the same reason that those Republicans want to double the amount of legal immigration and double down on H1B visas. Of course those same cheap labor Republicans refuse to understand that having fewer middle class whites shrinks the number of people who are willing to vote for Republicans.

  15. superdestroyer says:


    Isn’t the flip side of your stereotype is that Democrats believe that every problem can be solve by throwing more money at the problem with zero concern of the long term consequences. Even the progressive hero of Krugman believes that all economic problems can be solved by throwing money at the problem.

  16. Woody says:

    Spot-on analysis.

    I’ve noticed a widespread meme in right-wing blogs that Obama/the Democrats have maneuvered Boehner/the Republicans into a no-win situation. In actuality, this is a vital long-term issue that must be addressed if the party is to remain nationally competitive. I’m no fan of the current GOP, but change is always difficult, and they are wise to start addressing this now.

    The problem is that the party organs (News Corp/talkradio) aren’t rewarded for addressing long-term issues. They are rewarded for short-term outrage.

  17. Matt Bernius says:

    While I agree with the general analysis I have to wonder to what degree is Immigration reform going to drive a wedge between Senate and House republicans. As Doug correctly notes, the recent redistricting means that most House republican’s vulnerability is in primaries versus general elections.

    However when one looks at the Senate, things start to shift. The effects of the loss of Hispanic voters will most likely be felt more in state-wide races.

  18. Tony W says:

    @steve: I came of age during the Reagan years, and I am proud that my first vote was against him, and for Mondale/Ferraro. I was too young to vote against him the first time.

    Some of us saw through the shucks and grins – even as youngsters….