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Immigration Debate Is Killing GOP

By John McIntyre

Republicans face a growing disaster on immigration. Right now the GOP is sailing on a dangerous course where they are increasingly turning off two pillars of their new majority. The first pillar is the talk-radio portion of the Republican base led by Rush Limbaugh (and the many who have followed in his wake) that provide a tremendous amount of energy to the conservative movement. The second pillar the GOP is endangering is the Hispanic community, the single largest growing demographic in American politics. In 2004, President Bush increased his share of the Hispanic vote to around 40% nationally. Had John Kerry been able win the same percentage of the Hispanic vote as Al Gore in 2000, he would have won the presidency.

The problem for Republicans is they are split and not speaking with one voice. The result is that they are managing to turn off both of these vital constituencies. Beltway pundits who casually throw aside the concern of the conservative base on this issue make a mistake and underestimate voter intensity on the illegal immigration problem. For a conservative base already demoralized by a Republican-led Congress incapable of cutting spending and frustrated by a war that is either portrayed as floundering (or actually is floundering), abdication of responsibility on the illegal immigration mess may be the last straw that compels many conservatives to sit on their hands this November.

If you think Republicans are picking up support in the Hispanic community for how they are dealing with immigration, you'd be wrong. The Hispanic community is focusing on the severely PR-challenged House bill which has sparked enormous public demonstrations -- political energy that will not be helpful for Republicans this fall. It doesn't matter that an overwhelmingly majority of House Republicans voted to take the felon language out of the Sensenbrenner bill but were defeated by Democrats who cynically (but shrewdly) voted to keep the language intact. Rep. Peter King tried to explain on FOX News Sunday that the House bill is being distorted and humanitarians aiding illegals wouldn't be prosecuted, but it is too late. The House bill is killing Republicans in the Hispanic community.

So right now Republicans have managed to create a political environment on immigration that further demoralizes their base while at the same time angers the largest growing electoral demographic critical to a long-term GOP majority. Is it any wonder Senator Schumer implored Harry Reid to scuttle the Senate "compromise"? The last thing the Democrats want, from a political standpoint, is to resolve the immigration issue.

Even though Schumer and many Democrats don't want an immigration bill, Republicans should be happy the Senate compromise went down in flames. If something like the Senate bill were to become law it would be a disaster for Republicans because the conservative base will revolt if a Republican President and Congress attempts a rerun of the Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty of 20 years ago. When you strip it all down, that is essentially what the Senate compromise McCain and Kennedy were crowing about last week would be.

It would be counterproductive to suggest there are easy answers to our broken immigration system. There aren't. Any solution that expects to pass, and to have the backing of the country, means there will have to be compromise on all sides. If the need for good public policy can't get the Republicans to come together and get something done, then maybe fear of losing their majorities in Congress might compel some real leadership.

Unlike the Social Security stalemate, a compromise is possible, but it needs to be a compromise between McCain and Kyl, not McCain and Kennedy. Republican leaders should try and get as many Democrats on board as possible, but with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and the White House; Republicans have an obligation to lead irrespective of whether the Democrats wish to cooperate.

With an understanding going in that each side is going to have to give up something they deem non-negotiable, here is a rough outline around which a deal could be formed:

- it needs to be made clear (particularly to the Hispanic community) that the problem is illegal immigration not legal immigration.

-the flow of illegal immigrants has to be stopped. This is not about hiring x thousand more border agents or throwing more money at the problem. First, this means building a fence and securing the border. And second, fines and prison for employers and business owners that hire illegals. Law enforcement needs to be focused at the border and then within the country on employers, not the workers. The fact that you will not stop the illegal flow 100% misses the point and ignores the 90%-99% you will stop.

-the number of legal immigration slots needs to dramatically be increased. (Again, it has to be emphasized over and over that the problem is with illegal immigration, not legal immigration.)

-there needs to be some pathway to citizenship provided for the 11 million illegals here right now.

The right is going to cry amnesty at any process that puts illegals on a pathway to citizenship while still being able to live in the U.S. The left is going to balk at a real fence and shutting down the border. But liberals who say they are for enforcement and securing the border are going to have a hard time opposing the only real way to secure the border. And the only way conservatives will stomach what is effectively a 2nd amnesty is if they know a fence will go up and the illegal flow will grind to a halt.

With the President's leadership a compromise along these lines is possible. However, right now Bush and the GOP Congress appear rudderless; hoping gerrymandered House districts and not quite enough Republican Senate seats in play will keep them in power. Unfortunately for conservatives, it looks like they would rather play those odds than lead and grow their majority.

John McIntyre is the President and co-founder of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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