Jan. 30, 2013 -- For the first time in over five years, immigration reform appears to have a real chance of passing through Congress in no small part because Republicans lawmakers have joined in the process.
Republicans working on immigration reform have openly acknowledged that political considerations are a big reason they are at the table. If the GOP helps pass an immigration reform plan, the theory goes, it takes the issue "off the table" and would allow the party to reach out to Hispanic voters, who flocked to President Barack Obama in the last two elections.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, is one of the eight senators working on an immigration. McCain believes that his party could lose ground in traditionally red states with growing Latino populations if his party helps sink an immigration deal.
"As you look at demographics in states like mine, that means that we will go from Republican to Democrat over time," he said at a breakfast sponsored by Politico on Wednesday morning.
Republicans would be wise to heed McCain's words, but political observers on all sides of the political spectrum remain unconvinced. They argue that the Republican Party and the majority of Hispanic voters are at odds on a litany of issues, from the size and role of government to social issues, and dealing on immigration reform will not fix that fundamental problem.
"Given the longstanding divide between Hispanics and the GOP on immigration, it's hard to imagine all the damage will be resolved with one bipartisan reform bill," Michael Catalini wrote in National Journal on Wednesday.
People like Catalini are not entirely wrong. A big divide exists on those issues and a bipartisan immigration reform bill is not a panacea for the GOP's so-called "Hispanic problem." But they understate or miss entirely the importance of the immigration issue for Hispanic and Latino voters.
I covered this ground in a post-election piece that laid out the reasons for Republicans to deal on immigration, and it's worth revisiting some of the arguments I made in November.
Latino voters may list other issues like the economy and jobs higher in importance than immigration in public opinion polls, but it serves as the ultimate "gateway issue" for earning the trust of Hispanic and Latino voters.
Sixty percent of Latino voters said they know a friend, relative or co-worker who is undocumented, and thus face the threat of deportation under current law, according to an election eve poll conducted by political opinion research firm Latino Decisions. And national exit polling showed that three-quarters of Latino voters support a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. Polling also indicates that the Republican Party's stance and rhetoric on immigration fueled highly negative perceptions of the GOP among Latinos.
Simply put, immigration is a very personal issue for most Latino voters and they strongly support a bill similar to what's being discussed right now. It's unlikely that Republicans will be able to establish enough credibility among Hispanic voters to break through on issues like the economy and size of government unless they first address immigration.
As the Washington Post editorial board put it this morning: "It may not erase all the GOP's woes with Hispanic voters if the party goes along with a plan that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. But blocking a deal will almost certainly cement those problems for a generation or more."
It is hard to judge how much it would help the GOP to pass immigration reform. But a recent report by Latino Decisions gives up a glimpse. Thirty-one percent of Latino voters say that they would be more likely to vote Republican if the party look a lead role in passing comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, according to their polling. That includes 27 percent of the nearly three-quarters of Hispanic voters who backed Obama over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. It is possible those numbers could help the GOP reach the 40 percent threshhold of the so-called "Latino vote" it needs to win presidential election.
The last time a Republican cracked that mark was George W. Bush in 2004. Bush was a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.
There are also those who suggest that simply reframing the Republican Party's message on immigration would enough -- saying "undocumented" instead of "illegal immigrant," for example, but not changing fundamental policy. But as long as the issue remains unresolved, or "on the table," Democrats will blame Republicans for its failure. And no matter who is actually to blame, it's a safe bet that most Hispanic and Latino voters are likely to pin blame on Republicans given how poor the party's brand is in the community.
"Regardless of what anyone on our side says about the compatibility of our values and how immigration is only fourth or fifth down the line in our top list of priorities. We are not going to make significant progress until we get this immigration issue out of the way in a bipartisan fashion. We need to do that next year," American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas told me in an interview last August.
The specifics of a comprehensive immigration reform deal have yet to be fleshed out and Republicans participating in negotiations have every right to insist their priorities be a part of a final bill. And it would also do the GOP much good to formulate a wide-ranging plan to address Latino voters, one that reaches beyond the immigration issue.
But the GOP's hopes for breaking through to Latino voters will be inextricably tied to how the party handles the current debate over comprehensive immigration reform.