Seven years after Republican President George W. Bush urged Congress to provide millions of illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship, the party seems as divided over the issue now as it was then.
“I would say we’re in the pause mode,’’ Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday in an interview with reporters and editors from this newspaper. “Our members don’t feel they can trust the president to implement the law the way we would design it.’’
The Senate passed an immigration bill last June that included a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Boehner called on House Republicans to push through immigration reform “for the good of the country,” but his members balked. To many, the granting of citizenship in such instances amounts to amnesty. Even efforts that stop short of a path to full citizenship are problematic.
Some Republicans fear the stalemate over the issue could mean trouble in future elections by antagonizing Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing minority in America.
Just two years ago, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called on illegal immigrants to self-deport. In the election that followed, he received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to 44 percent for Bush in 2004 when he defeated Democrat John Kerry.
“The system is irretrievably broken and most people when they look at irretrievably broken systems try to make them better,’’ said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant in Washington. “That’s what the Senate did with their bill — a far from perfect bill — but a good faith effort to solve the problem. And the speaker is absolutely right when he says the House needs to take its turns at bat.’’
“A proportionate of the electorate made up of non-Hispanic whites is in the midst of a long, consistent and inexorable decline,” Ayers said. “The idea that you can win presidential elections in the future by getting a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller portion of the electorate is delusional.’’
The Hispanic vote — and its ability to swing close elections — has Democrats even giddy about the November congressional elections. Polls indicate that Republicans are likely to hold the House and perhaps seize control of the Senate, but a strong Hispanic vote could change that outlook.
“It has handed the Dems one of the greatest get-out-the-vote operations in the mid-terms they could ever have done,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in Boston. “Thank you very much.’’
Some aren’t buying the argument that taking a stance against amnesty for undocumented immigrants will drive away Hispanics. They say those votes wouldn’t come the Republicans way even they stood behind an immigration bill.
“There is this insane philosophy that if we do this, Hispanics will vote for Republicans,” said Tom Zawistowski of the Portage County Tea Party. “We can’t help but laugh out loud at that.’’
Unlike Texas, Florida, and Nevada, Ohio does not have a large Hispanic population. According to the U.S. Census, in 2010 Hispanics made up about 3.3 percent of the population compared to 16.9 percent for the country as a whole.
But nobody knows for certain how many illegal immigrants are in Ohio. Dennis Muchnicki, an immigration lawyer in Columbus, estimates that the state has more than 100,000 illegal immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic.
Muchnicki said most business executives would say that “many of the illegals are hard, industrious workers, and honest,’’ who only “want an opportunity to earn a living.
“They’re not here for welfare,” Muchnicki said. “They’re here to work for a living.’’
Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said some employers in the region are frustrated over the red tape involved in hiring immigrants.
“We have employers who want to hire legal immigrants,” he said. “But they need to do it with minimal burdens that don’t provide extra hoops for them to jump through.’’
The chamber in 2011 launched what it calls a “Welcome Dayton” program, a concept to attract legal immigrants to the Dayton area to launch their own businesses. The chamber claims that the region’s immigration rate increased by 40 percent between 2011 and 2012.
“We need partners on the federal level to provide a friendly environment for immigrants to be successful as well,’’ Kershner said.
‘There is a way’
Last month at a House Republican retreat in Maryland, Boehner outlined a series of ideas that he and GOP leaders could support – tighter border security and tougher enforcement of illegals in the United States. Boehner also held out hope that some undocumented immigrants could attain a “legal status’’ short of full citizenship.
In the Thursday interview, Boehner said, “There are hundreds of issues that need to be dealt with on this whole issue of immigration.
“And I want us to deal with them. I think we can do this is in a common sense step by step way – whether it’s five, six, eight bills — where our members can digest what’s in each of these bills and where their constituents can digest it. I think there is a way to do this.’’
But conservatives have objected to Boehner’s plan, with some such as Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, saying “you can’t trust the president to negotiate in good faith on immigration.’’
Democrats, of course, dismiss such complaints. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., even offered to delay implementing a new immigration law until after Obama leaves office in 2017.
Some observers say immigration reform is dead as long as Republicans face Tea Party challenges in districts across America.
There is little doubt that in the conservative congressional districts, GOP backers of immigration reform could face a backlash. Some analysts are convinced that Boehner is stalling now before returning to the issue after the spring primaries.
“The only thing his caucus is afraid of is a primary challenge,’’ said James Manley, a former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “They’re not worried about 2016. They’re worried about surviving a primary.’’
Manley said the fear is that a divisive debate on immigration will spoil any chances for a resounding Republican win in the November mid-term elections.
“They think they have a good chance of holding the House and gaining seats in the Senate,” he said. “So many in his caucus don’t want to do anything to upset that dynamic.”