Bush's Immigration Failure Offers Obama a Lesson

President Bush speaks about immigration reform at the Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 7, 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The prospects for major immigration reform are now the brightest in years, but for key players in Washington, a shadow still looms: the ghost of 2006.

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That was the last time the stars were aligned for a breakthrough. Immigration reform that included a path to citizenship for those in the United States illegally had the support of President Bush, a broad labor-business-faith coalition, and a bipartisan Senate majority. Yet that armada ultimately splintered against the stony refusal of House Republican leaders to consider a bill opposed by a majority of their majority.

Any of that sound familiar?

Already many of the same dynamics are developing, with President Obama stamping immigration reform as a top priority, a bipartisan Senate coalition reassembling, a broad outside alliance of support groups coalescing — and most House Republicans rejecting anything that hints at "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Yet the contrasts between now and 2006, particularly in the political climate, are also significant. Understanding both the similarities and the differences will be critical for reform advocates if they are to avoid replicating the disappointment they suffered under Bush.

Presidential interest was then, as it is now, critical in elevating immigration reform. Since his days as Texas governor, Bush had courted Hispanics, and — even during the 2000 GOP presidential primary campaign — he strikingly defended illegal immigrants as "moms and dads" trying to make a better life for their children. Together with his political "architect," Karl Rove, Bush saw comprehensive reform that coupled a path to citizenship with tougher enforcement as an opportunity to consolidate the beachhead that allowed him to capture more than 40 percent of Hispanic voters in his 2004 reelection.

But Bush largely looked away when Republicans who controlled the House channeled that impulse in a very different direction. In December 2005, they passed an enforcement-only bill drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, that, for the first time, designated all undocumented immigrants as felons. (Previously, illegal presence in the U.S. had been a civil, not criminal, violation.)

Initially, debate in the GOP-controlled Senate drifted. Majority Leader Bill Frist, considering a 2008 presidential bid, pushed his own enforcement-only bill. But amid the backdrop of huge public rallies against Sensenbrenner's proposal, Sen. Arlen Specter unexpectedly joined with three other Republicans and all eight Judiciary Committee Democrats in late March to approve a comprehensive plan, including a path to citizenship, that followed a blueprint negotiated by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain.

When broader Senate agreement teetered over the terms of legalization, Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez devised a compromise that divided illegal immigrants into three categories, requiring those here less than two years to leave but allowing those with deeper roots to eventually earn citizenship by paying fines and learning English. After Bush finally delivered a national address on immigration, a bill embodying that plan cleared the Senate with 62 votes, including support from 23 Republicans.

House Republicans immediately signaled their disinterest by refusing to appoint a conference committee and instead scheduled hearings in border communities to highlight security lapses. "Border security reigned supreme," recalls Ron Bonjean, the communications director for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert. "I remember being in a meeting with "¦ the leadership where pollsters came in and said border security was the key to our reelection."

Even in 2006, something like the Senate plan likely could have attracted 218 votes in the House — but not a majority of Republicans. Faced with a collision between his two political imperatives — courting Hispanics and mobilizing conservatives — Bush blinked, allowing House leaders to replace the Senate bill with enforcement-only legislation, which he signed that fall. These choices began the GOP's slide among Hispanics that continues unabated: Hispanic support for Republican House candidates plummeted from 44 percent in 2004 to just 29 percent in 2006, presaging Mitt Romney's disastrous 27 percent showing among those voters in 2012.

That slippage is one of the two most important differences in the political environment around immigration between 2006 and today. Back then, as Bonjean notes, hardly any House Republicans argued that the GOP needed to pass a plan attractive to minorities. But many GOP leaders now see that as self-preservation. "The political imperative has shifted the tectonic plates," says Frank Sharry, a key player in the 2006 debate who remains central as executive director of America's Voice, which backs full citizenship for immigrants. "Immigration was viewed as a wedge issue for Republicans in 2006. Now it's viewed as a wedge issue for Democrats."

The "Gang of Eight" proposal released this week makes it likely that, as in 2006, the Senate will eventually pass a bipartisan immigration bill. Once again, there are probably 218 House votes for such a plan, but not a majority of the majority Republicans. That raises another key difference from 2006: Hastert faced little pressure to consider the Senate bill, because Bush bit his tongue when the speaker buried it. If House Republicans shelve another bipartisan Senate plan in 2013, they should expect much more public heat, because Obama won't be as deferential.

This article appeared in the Saturday, February 2, 2013 edition of National Journal.