Why immigration reform never comes

By Alan Bean

There are a holy host of great arguments for reforming our nations’ immigration laws.

Latino voters flexed their muscles in the last presidential election, convincing many Republicans that you can no longer win the White House without winning at least 40% of that demographic.

People of faith, including a well-organized cohort of evangelical leaders, recognize the deep disconnect between prevailing immigration policy and the biblical mandate to care for the stranger.

The Chamber of Commerce and most business leaders favor immigration reform because the economy requires a willing, hard working, motivated workforce.  Since a genuine clampdown on the undocumented would ruin states like Texas, a pathway to citizenship and legal status for America’s eleven million undocumented workers just makes sense.

These arguments made it possible for the Senate to pass a reform package which, though  deeply flawed, represents an improvement over the status quo.  

But this weekend, John Boehner huddled with House Republicans, only nine of whom require significant support from Latino votes to hold their seats.  The big fear is losing a primary election to a more conservative candidate who opposes reform.

That isn’t what Mr. Boehner told reporters when he emerged from his retreat, of course.  He can’t support immigration reform, he told reporters, because House Republicans don’t trust Barack Obama to enforce the tough border security measures that Republican-backed legislation would require.

Republican congressmen realize that Mr. Obama has deported far more people than any US President before him; they just don’t believe his heart is in it.

And they are probably right.  You get the impression that President Obama would like to show more compassion on a number of fronts if he thought it was politically feasible.

Obama says too many young black males are incarcerated in American prisons, but he has made only token efforts to alter that fact.  And he is likely distressed by the grotesque consequences of his cruel policy of mass deportation as well.  Yet he believes that he can’t reform the system unless he bargains from a position of strength, and that means playing tough.

The problem isn’t that House Republicans don’t trust the president; the problem is that their overwhelmingly white, middle class constituency views Obama as a Kenyan Muslim socialist who is rapidly transforming the United States into Sweden.

Politicians can rise no higher than the men and women who vote them into office.  This is why people of faith can never crawl into bed with politicians.  It always ends badly.

Half a century ago, the Republican Party decided to market itself as the Party of White.  Most Republicans chalk up the monochrome nature of their party to the greed and dependency of minority voters; but the folks making the big decisions understand that minority disaffection with the Grand Old Party is an inevitable reaction to half of century of scorn and thinly veiled insult.

That’s why most Republican strategists think its time to mothball the Southern Strategy that worked so well for so long.  If the goal is to create an updated version of the Solid South, the old strategy will continue to work wonders.  But if the goal is to prepare the Republican Party for the demographic shift that will inevitably reshape the American electorate, something’s gotta give.

Unfortunately, when you encourage the worst aspects of human nature with consistency and gusto, a sick sort of consensus emerges.  Men and women who live in heavily insulated white bubbles are easily convinced that the folks outside the bubble are violent, lazy moochers who can’t be trusted with the reins of government.

Trying to rally a majority of these bubble people behind immigration reform is a tough sell.

Eventually, both major parties will have to look like America if they hope to survive and flourish.  A Party of White can only survive in isolated pockets in the Old South, it has no future in most of the country and will be increasingly incapable of electing a president.

But the changes coming with these shifting demographic realities won’t kick in for at least another decade, and it will be a quarter century before the transformation really take effect.

In the meantime, we’ll live with a lot of ugly.