Carl Leubsdorf: GOP's border stance spells trouble for 2016

The Dallas Morning NewsJuly 10, 2014 

Republicans are once again criticizing the Obama administration's handling of immigration. Despite a lot of talk, the GOP has done nothing to improve its dire political standing with Hispanics.

Within days of Mitt Romney's decisive 2012 defeat, GOP leaders agreed they needed a more positive approach to the rapidly growing number of Hispanics.

In just two elections, hard-line rhetoric against immigration reform has decreased the GOP's share of Hispanic voters from more than 40 percent for President George W. Bush in 2004 to just 27 percent for Romney.

The final votes hadn't even been tabulated when House Speaker John Boehner called a comprehensive approach "long overdue" and expressed confidence "the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

Later, a five-member Republican National Committee panel issued a report, concluding, "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

But as the 2014 election approaches, and the nation is fixated on the latest border crisis, nothing has changed. Republicans helped pass the Senate's compromise immigration bill, but GOP opposition blocked House consideration of it or any alternative. In effect, Boehner gave tea party opponents veto power by rejecting a bipartisan approach that might have succeeded, perhaps to protect his job.

Now, as thousands of Central American children flood Texas and other states, familiar battle lines have formed. President Barack Obama's administration is beset by a problem for which it was clearly unprepared, blaming GOP failure to back a comprehensive immigration bill.

Republican critics, meanwhile, are taking their usual hard-line approach, urging immediate deportation of the immigrants and blaming Obama's reform efforts, especially his 2012 amnesty for thousands of young illegals and his effort to pass legislation providing a path to citizenship for millions already here.

The administration's ineptness may drive Obama's sagging job approval lower. But negative comments by top Republicans are unlikely to prove attractive to Hispanics already suspicious of the GOP's approach.

"We either have an incredibly inept administration, or they're in on this somehow or another," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Sunday on ABC's Week, perhaps trying to ensure his planned 2016 presidential bid won't again draw criticism as in 2012 for being soft on illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, the influx has continued despite Obama's late June warning in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they'll get sent back."

Vice President Joe Biden took that message to Central American leaders last month, but mainly drew complaints about the lack of rights here for migrants from their countries.

This week, the administration belatedly stepped up its warnings that most new arrivals will be sent home, presumably hoping to improve prospects for approval of the $3.7 billion in additional funds Obama sought Tuesday to deal with the situation. But it faces a major fight, with many GOP lawmakers opposed.

Meanwhile, Republicans like Perry and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and some Hispanic Democrats urged Obama to visit the border Wednesday while in Texas for two fundraisers. Though he rejected what could have become a "photo op" with children being deported, Obama instead made plans to meet in Dallas with Perry and other officials dealing with border affairs.

At some point, this crisis will vanish from the television screens and front pages. But Republicans will still have a problem. It may not impact this year's mid-term House elections much, since most GOP lawmakers serve districts with few Hispanics, but could affect some key Senate races.

The main impact will come in 2016, when the Hispanic vote is likely to total 16.5 percent, compared with 15 percent in 2012.

"As it stands now, it will be hard for the GOP to win national presidential elections in 2016 and beyond without a significant share of the Hispanic vote," wrote Juhem Navarro-Rivera, research associate with the Public Religion Research Institute.

Others were more blunt.

Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue, urging GOP leaders to help enact immigration legislation, said, "If the Republicans don't do it, they shouldn't bother to run a candidate in 2016."

Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), agreed that, without action, "It doesn't matter who we'll nominate."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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