Immigration reform a quiet but powerful force in the room during President Obama's State of the Union

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 7:07 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP) President Barack Obama (Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

The elephant in the room during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday spoke Spanish.

Although immigration reform only garnered five paragraphs in Obama’s speech, it represents one of the few places where bipartisan agreement seems likely. And, not coincidentally, immigration reform is also the one place where the Democrats hold a decisive chokehold on Republican electoral hopes, as the GOP continues to struggle to make inroads into a hostile but rapidly growing Hispanic voter base.

Obama’s agenda

Even before Tuesday's address, the Las Vegas Sun had begun referring to the main event as "State of the Union II." Part 1 occurred three weeks ago in Las Vegas, where the president laid down the gauntlet on immigration reform.

The overview he offered Tuesday night was a compressed summary of that speech. Tuesday night, Obama lauded the contributions of immigrants to the economy and American society, and then made an obligatory nod to better enforcement at the border.

He then opened the real agenda, which centers on a pathway to “earned citizenship” for illegal immigrants, so long as they pay a penalty, learn English and go to “the back of the line behind folks trying to come here legally.

“And real reform,” Obama said, “means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

Obama also noted that a bipartisan group is already moving the issue forward and he expects to see a comprehensive reform bill emerge.

Running scared

If a compromise emerges, it will be because Republicans have been running scared since Nov. 7, 2012. Mitt Romney got just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the presidential election that day, in sharp contrast to the 44 percent captured by George W. Bush in 2004. Of course, Romney’s mark only fell slightly short of the 31 percent won in 2008 by Sen. John McCain.

The GOP challenge of immigration cuts into the heart of its base. Today, 38 percent of Texans are Hispanic, up from 36 percent in 2006. A majority of Texans are already ethnic minorities, and by 2030 a majority of Texans will be Hispanic.

“Republicans are in a tricky place,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The Republican problem with Latinos is not just an immigration problem.”

The difficulty for the GOP is that even if the party stripped away all the baggage on immigration politics, Hispanic voters still would prefer the Democrats by overwhelming margins, West said.

A Pew Hispanic Center poll in 2011 asked Americans, “Would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services?” Just 41 percent of the general population called for bigger government, but 75 percent of Hispanics did.

Broken down by generation, first-generation Hispanics favored more government by 81 percent, second generation by 72 percent, and third or higher by 58 percent. So while assimilation lowers the disparity, it remains very marked.

Republicans may thus continue to struggle with Hispanic vote, West said, even if immigration friction is removed. “That’s the box the Republicans find themselves in,” West said. “When you look at it historically, when a group of voters has a problem with a party it usually takes very substantial policy changes to win that block of voters back.”

Rubio and Rand

Given Republican struggles with Hispanic voters, the party’s choice of Marco Rubio to give its response to the State of the Union was a no-brainer. While many believe Time magazine went over the top when it dubbed Rubio “the Republican savior” earlier this month, Rubio’s youth and charisma and his ability to articulate Republican policies set him apart, even if he were not a child of Cuban immigrants who speaks fluent Spanish.

But it doesn’t hurt.

Rubio’s response to the State of the Union largely sidestepped details on immigration policy. “We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest,” Rubio said. “We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

Rubio’s reticence may be because the GOP base remains chary of where things are heading and Rubio wants to avoid attracting fire to the gestating compromise. National Review’s Rich Lowry, for example, headlined a column last week, “Marco Rubio’s Bad Deal.”

“Once an illegal immigrant gets ‘probationary legal status,’” Lowry wrote, “he has jumped irrevocably ahead of all those poor saps back in their native countries who want to come to the U.S. but for whatever reason were unwilling or unable to break our immigration laws to do it.”

Ironically, the Tea Party response delivered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took on immigration directly, taking a pro-immigrant position that is consistent for Paul, as a libertarian, but would strike many Tea Party critics as counterintuitive.

“We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity. Therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future,” Rand said. “We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, ‘If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.’”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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