Why Republicans Are Suddenly Pro-Immigration Reform

The GOP establishment has long wanted to pass comprehensive immigration reform but been cowed by its activist base. Tuesday's election gave them an opening.

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Republicans lost the election in part because Mitt Romney drew record-low support from Hispanic voters, who made up a record-high proportion of the electorate. Within days, top Republicans have figured out what to do about this: Support immigration reform!

The chorus of prominent voices has been stunning: From Sen. Marco Rubio to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, from television and radio host Sean Hannity to columnist Charles Krauthammer. To some on the left, this looks like the most craven sort of opportunism -- the GOP scrambling for a quick PR fix to its deep-seated demographic problems.

But many Republicans aren't flip-flopping at all. In fact, there's long been a significant amount of latent support for immigration reform in the GOP, particularly among the Republican establishment. The business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, has long wanted to fix the broken immigration system that creates so many problems for employers. Top Catholic and evangelical Christian conservatives also want to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the shadows.

Immigration reform has a tortured history of being used as a political football by both parties. But what gives advocates so much hope at the current moment is that both parties' incentives finally seem to be aligned. Republicans are desperate to make a gesture of inclusion to minorities; Democrats face pressure to fulfill a campaign promise. Meanwhile, the counterpressures that have doomed action in the past -- chiefly the anger of a noisy but small segment of the Republican base -- have faded in the past few years.

"We're feeling pretty good about this," says Frank Sharry, the longtime immigration-reform advocate who heads a group called America's Voice. In the week since the election, he's been pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of Republican support for the issue. "The tectonic plates are shifting."

In 2006, Sharry points out, a comprehensive reform bill coauthored by John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy passed the U.S. Senate with 62 votes, 23 of them from Republicans, including then-Majority Leader Bill Frist. It was only after House Republicans, seeking to gin up their base, began attacking it as an "amnesty bill" -- and pro-reform activists took to the streets by the tens of thousands in cities across the country -- that the issue became politically toxic.

The Republicans' ploy to use immigration as a wedge didn't work; in November 2006, they lost the House and Senate. Then-President George W. Bush sought to push the issue again in 2007; advocates blame Democrats who didn't want to hand Bush a political win for stalling the bill.

McCain, running in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, moved away from his prior support for reform. After losing the 2008 general election, he moved even farther to the right to keep his Senate seat against a conservative challenger in Arizona in 2010 -- campaign ads featured McCain saying, "Complete the danged fence!" All this saddened immigration advocates, who saw McCain as embittered by losing the presidential election and getting just 31 percent of the Hispanic vote in the process.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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