It’s fight night over immigration reform

Immigration reform supporters hold signs during a press conference in Brentwood on June 4, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

They are battling over immigration reform.

Immigration reform supporters hold signs during a press conference in Brentwood on June 4, 2014.
Immigration reform supporters hold signs during a press conference in Brentwood on June 4, 2014. Photo Credit: Melissa Kravitz

Welcome to the Cable News Boxing Channel. Tonight, like every night, our main event features the same two heavyweights – Congressional Republicans versus the Obama White House.

This time, they are battling over immigration reform.

There’s the opening bell – and once again both fighters are immediately punching furiously, landing powerful lefts and rights to the head and body. But wait! We’ve never seen anything quite like this – both boxers are standing in their own corners and punching themselves in the head and body.

It looks to ringsiders like these heavyweights just don’t get it. Both boxers must think all they have to do to win is pile up points for each punch they land. But they are only hurting themselves – and it sure doesn’t look pretty.

Here’s the slo-mo replay – it’s easy to see where they both went so wrong.

Republican leaders know that even their stunning victories in capturing control of Congress in 2014 are no guarantee for winning the White House in 2016. Democrats have a solid electoral vote margin in the big states. And Republican strategists realize that to win there, their party must appeal to the ever-increasing number of new Hispanic voters.

Yet they began their 2014 post-election victory era by inflicting unnecessary damage to their chances of doing that. They immediately reverted to looking like the same-old, same-old Republicans who are determined to block President Obama from any success. Even if it means splitting up families of undocumented Hispanic immigrants who were in America, working and law-abiding for years.

Most importantly, GOP strategists realize demographic trends all show America’s nonwhite voters – especially Hispanics – are growing far faster than white voters. One study, by the left-tilting Center for American Progress, estimated that in Texas in 2016, some 900,000 Hispanics will become eligible to vote, compared to 185,000 newly eligible white voters. While those precise estimates may be open to question, the trend is beyond doubt. It was the reason former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suggested this year that Texas may actually become a Democratic Blue state by 2016.

It was also the reason one conservative Texas duo – former President George W. Bush and his longtime strategist, Karl Rove – dreamed for years of remolding Republicans’ image by having the GOP sponsor reforms that curbed deportations of undocumented immigrants.

But their dream fizzled, and today’s conservatives sneeringly call such thinking “liberal.” But the more Republicans thought they were punching at Obama this month, the more they were really punching out their own prospects for appealing to Hispanics in 2016.

Enter Obama. Fresh from the pain of his party’s (and, really, his own) midterm election defeats this month, the president jumped quickly into the immigration reform ring. But his opening salvos mainly kayoed his own credibility.

Obama declared he would issue an executive order to halt a number of deportations that were required by law. The problem here was that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, had already established a record of rejecting suggestions that he could issue executive actions to avoid deportations Congress had required. And fact-checking journalists soon spotlighted them.

September 2013: “If we start broadening that, then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option.” January 2013: “I’m not a king. You know, my job as the head of the executive branch ultimately is to carry out the law. And, you know, when it comes to enforcement of our immigration laws . we can’t simply ignore the law.” Obama had made himself look duplicitous. Even though he was just trying to achieve the reform he had promised to get done years ago.

But in the end, the Republican leaders may have just hurt their once-Grand Old Party in ways that are most damaging – perhaps even irreparable.

Last April, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly discussed all of that with Rove. The strategist laid out ideas for how a conservative reform package might have satisfied progressive goals, yet molded a bright red presidential future for his party. To which O’Reilly offered a final prophecy: “The Republican Party must compromise on the immigration issue or it will lose the presidency again in 2016.”

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

MARTIN SCHRAM, Tribune News Service