Last fall, when President Obama was reelected and Republicans were processing their unanticipated loss, the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform looked stronger than any policy in Obama’s first four years. That was mainly because Republicans had just watched Mitt Romney lose Hispanic voters by more than 40 percentage points and understood that demographics were threatening their future viability.
Eight months later, the odds for immigration reform look much, much worse — despite the comprehensive reform bill that just passed the Senate with bipartisan support. Once again, Republican sentiment is responsible for the change. As the shock of Romney’s loss has faded, many Republicans have talked themselves out of taking the step they once thought urgent — agreeing to legal status and a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The verdict should become clearer after House Republicans meet on Wednesday to plot a strategy for how to move ahead — or not move ahead — on immigration.
A big cause of the shift in GOP attitudes, besides a general unwillingness to hand Obama a victory, is a growing belief that agreeing to reform the nation’s immigration laws isn’t necessary to repair the party’s problems with Hispanic voters. If Republicans indeed choose this path, then they’ll have to study carefully the handful of House and Senate members who have opposed reform and still managed to attract a sizeable share of Hispanic voters.
Former Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who retired this year, is probably the leading example. Kyl led the opposition to the 2006 immigration reform bill written by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain and endorsed by President George W. Bush. That same year — a terrible one for Republicans — Kyl won reelection, carrying 42 percent of Hispanics.
“I succeeded for a variety of reasons,” Kyl said in an interview. “First, I never had the reputation of being unfair or in any way bigoted. Second, my campaign included representatives of all parts of the community, including Hispanics.” Kyl also regularly visited Hispanic neighborhoods to listen to voters’ concerns, which he says helped him balance hardline policies with respect for those who would be affected by them.
“Most Hispanics, at least in Arizona, are not [motivated by] the issue of illegal immigration,” he said. “But much of the debate on the GOP side has been conducted in a way that turns people off. Immigrants, especially legal ones, resent folks trying to cut in line and aren’t naturally supportive of a pathway to citizenship. But they do resent non-Hispanics talking about Hispanics in derogatory ways. That will color not just their judgment, but lots of voters’ judgment, even if the issue doesn’t affect them personally.”
For the most part, Kyl avoided these pitfalls, drawing significant support even after he introduced legislation in 2005 with Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas that would have forced undocumented workers to leave the country before applying for legal status. As such, Kyl would seem like an obvious champion of the House Republicans’ efforts to block reform along the lines of what the Senate has passed, which includes immediate legal status for most undocumented workers.
In fact, Kyl is ambivalent about the Senate bill. “I don’t know how I would have voted on it,” he admitted. “Unfortunately, it’s almost too late to correct the party’s problems for a lot of people. There’s an assumption [about the GOP’s hostility to Hispanics] that’s just kind of sunken in that Democrats and the media are all too happy to confirm.”
Kyl credits Senate Republicans with how they have handled the tricky politics of immigration reform. “They did it right this time, and we did it wrong,’’ he said. “We didn’t develop support among conservative media leaders in the way that [Florida Senator Marco] Rubio did. We also went straight to the floor of the Senate, not through the committee process. Going through the semblance of regular order makes it harder to oppose.”
But Kyl also views the issue from a broader perspective than he once did. After leaving the Senate, he joined the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burling. Ethics laws forbid him from lobbying for two years. In the meantime, he is “advising” business clients on how to navigate Congress on a host of issues — including immigration reform.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.