This Unnecessary GOP Fight Over Immigration Could Have Been Avoided With Leadership

By Alex Gonzalez

Linsey GrahamWith the victory of David Brat over Eric Cantor in Virginia, many presume that the issue of immigration is dead and that the Republican “anti-reform” tea party wing will kill any prospects for an immigration reform.  But this may be the exact opposite.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) won his primary re-election openly supporting the Senate Immigration Bill S.774 (Sen. Graham was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who pushed immigration reform through the chamber last year) The bill was never taken up by the GOP-controlled House. Similarly, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) ran in support of an immigration reform and she won with almost 60% defeating another “anti-reform” tea party opponent in South Carolina. The difference between Republican Immigration reformers and “anti-reformers” is that the leadership stance makes the difference in outcome.

In Texas, last week, the Republican Party adopted a political platform that no longer endorses a provisional visa program for immigrants, calls for ending in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and for prohibiting “sanctuary cities” that do not enforce immigration laws, a reversal from two years ago when the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) adopted the “Texas Solution.” This new revised platform has sent the RPT into an Open Rebellion” by Hispanic Republicans who see the party of Ronald Reagan vanishing. Moreover, this harsh rhetoric within the platform may tarnish the efforts by Greg Abbott to woo Latino voters in Texas.

But all this fighting and “open rebellion” on Immigration could have been avoided if Republicans in the House of Representatives would have taken the leadership in the House and dealt with this issue last year when the Senate passed Immigration Bill S.744. Sadly, the consequences of this lack of leadership in the House created a vacuum that was filled with “opportunistic” candidates and groups that raise funds by inserting the word “amnesty” into any pragmatic legislation. Furthermore, this vacuum of leadership on Immigration has allowed few groups and radio hosts to have control over this issue, and thereby, labeling any pro-reform Republicans as “supporting amnesty.” And while theses groups and “opportunistic” candidates claim that they are true bearers of conservatism, for the first time in twenty years, Republican strategists and Delegates at Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth were talking about a possible split-vote in Texas (referring to Dan Patrick who became very popular running an anti-immigration campaign) and thereby, putting the Republican Party in Texas in a chaotic fight over the Latino vote and “the soul” of the Party, as warned by Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba. Inaction in the House as also put the Republican future in Texas in question because even though Latinos in Texas  tend to be more Conservative than in any other state, they fear the Party is no longer controlled by Ronald Reagan core Republicans values.

Republicans in the House failed to do what Sen. Graham and Rep. Renee Ellmers did in North Carolina: you steadfastly support the bill and explain the voters what it is, and don’t let radio hosts and “anti-reform” groups mislead conservative voters.

Had the House acted in 2013 when the Bill S. 744 passed the Senate, by now we would have a Bill, the border would be “protected” and this intra-fight could have been avoided. But instead, Republicans allowed few Senators like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz- and subsequently Dan Patrick in Texas – to use this issue to boost their  popularity by claiming opposition to “amnesty“.   Additionally, had the House of Representative acted, we also could have avoided the nastiness of the race for Lt. Governor where Immigration played a major role since all candidates wanted to sound “tough” an immigration by making impractical remarks on Immigration , and thereby, tarnishing the image of the GOP  with Latino voters who want the Republican Party to talk about Jobs, education, free trade and closer economic ties with Mexico to solve issues of border security and labor shortages.

If Ted Cruz (R-TX), acting as a leader representing the interests of Texas and RPT, had supported the Bill when it passed the Senate since he was not running for reelection, Republican activists in Texas and tea party groups would have felt comfortable supporting the Bill. However, Cruz opted to add more fuel to the fire by attaching the “amnesty” word to any immigration reform in the House, which made him more popular with tea party base, but is creating a bigger wedge between the tea partiers and Republicans Latino and Latino voters in the state. Moreover, Cruz’s “anti amnesty” speeches put him at odds with Greg Abbott who needs to find a more moderate tone to woo Latino voters,  especially in South Texas where Abbott wants to get 40% of the Latino vote.

Hence, Ted Cruz had an opportunity to take a leadership role but he did the opposite and rallied again Speaker John Boehner. For example, each time House Speaker John Boehner mentioned any possible Immigrant Bill, The Heritage Foundation and Ted Cruz will go on radio and send emails blasts claiming “backdoor amnesty,” and accusing Republicans and Speaker Boehner of working on “amnesty.”

Later that day while Boehner was closeted with colleagues miles from the nation’s capital, Cruz used back-to-back television appearances to invoke the politically charged word “amnesty” to characterize the legalization offered by Boehner’s plan. 

And this was the “anti-amnesty”  strategy that Dan Patrick easily copied since he announced he was running for Lt. Governor against David Dewhurst last year. But it all comes during an election cycle in which Hispanic Texans are seen as an especially critical voting bloc that Abbott has worked to woo. And although Dan Patrick and the state party new revised platform has no real policy direction since Immigration is entirely a Congressional federal matter, the bigger issue here is the fissure that it is creating within the GOP, especially with Latino voters.  Consequently, this fissure on immigration among Republicans in Texas, and the nation, is clearly a result of lack or leadership where radio hosts filled the vacuum of leadership and set the agenda, in concert with the Heritage Foundation, and now they have control over the immigration issue; and thereby, labeling any Republicans in support of the Immigration Bill as “supporting amnesty.”

But this is the opposite of what the re-election campaign by Sen. Lindsey Graham did to defeat seven opponents by taking leadership role on this issue. For example, the strategy employed by Sen. Lindsey Graham involving immigration was that, Graham – a member of the Senate Gang of Eight – relentlessly advocated for an overhaul of immigration.

Therefore, many advocates pointed that Graham’s decisive victory should be what guides the influence of immigration in primaries – not Cantor’s. Voters in Cantor’s district never knew where he stood on the issue of immigration, and unlike Graham, Cantor never took the time to explain what the issue; he allowed radio hosts to like Mike Levin and Laura Ingram define everything as “amnesty.”

As Politico noted: “Cantor didn’t lose because of immigration,…He lost because of the deep unpopularity of both himself personally and of the Republican House leadership. Even in his conservative district voters still want immigration reform passed, and they want it this year.” Therefore, Graham’s victory over a crowded field on the right stands in contrast to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, where GOP challenger Dave Brat upset the seven-term Republican for the party’s nomination.

Similarly, unlike Eric Cantor who let radio host Laura Ingraham portrait him as “pro-amnesty,” Congresswoman Renee Ellmers went to the Laura Ingraham show and clearly defined what Immigration reform meant for the country, and why it was not amnesty. Essentially, she took a leadership role and did not allow radio hosts to mislead listeners about her pro-reform conservative agenda. Sen. Graham and Rep. Renee Ellmers won nearly 60% of the vote. Graham’s victory shows the senator was able to overcome the controversy over his support of an overhaul of immigration laws—unlike House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Mr. Graham had backed a Senate bill that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, despite the fact that opposition to such provisions—and to an overhaul in general—remain high within the GOP. Some of his primary challengers used his stance on immigration as the leading point of their attacks. However, all of this could have been prevented.

But right now the Republican leadership in Texas and in Congress are in facing an “open rebellion” because the House failed to act last year, and it has jeopardized possibility of winning the presidency in 2016; and maybe the election of the first Latina Democrat as Lt. Governor in Texas.

Both Rep. Renee Ellmers and Lindsey Graham won re-election and avoided a runoff because they took the time and leadership role to stick ot the pro-reform platform and explain the voters what it meant; and the perhaps it is time for the RPT to start doing the same to tame some of the groups that have “infiltrated” the Party pushing their “extremes” anti-reform views. Moreover, in Texas, the new Republican platform could be the result of many “extremes” groups who have “infiltrated” Republican circles at the county levels and now use the Republican Party apparatus and forums to spread misinformation about immigration with literature from FAIR, The Eagle Forum and Heritage Action.

Hence, this is also failed RPT leadership at the county levels where chairman/woman have allowed some tea party “extreme” views on immigration to be portrayed as Republicans views. In other words, the vacuum of leadership on immigration has permitted that county chairs open up the Party machine apparatus to these groups to spread misleading information about Immigration and set an agenda than no longer reflect the pragmatic views of the Republican Party Ronald Reagan built.

As for the Latino Republican communities, we asked many Latino/Hispanic Republicans at the Convention who came to our booth from south Texas and large metro areas like San Antonio what was the main problem in their communities and outreach. One-hundred percent agreed that it was the lack resources to build a party infrastructure to recruit Latino voters and bring the message to Latino communities. Conversely, this lack of attention from the Party is causing that some of these Latino groups are beginning to shift to tea party views because they feel “the establishment” have neglected their communities for years. This should be a warning sign for the RPT,  since a basic model of political movements is that when political groups feel neglected from those in power, they tend to make alliances with other “fringe” groups that show more attention and they coalesce behind an anti-establishment message as it was the model used by Ted Cruz to rally against the Republican “Establishment.”

As a result, lack of attention is making many Latinos conservative groups foster an “anti-establishment” feeling in Texas, A la Cruz, because they see it as the only way to raise to power. This also should also be a warning for RPT and all Republicans in Texas because these anti-reform groups are not in the business of building a stronger (big tent) Republican, but mainly about their media market share and to holding on to their power-grab they got in  the“wave” of 2010. Moreover, when Chairman Steve Munisteri claims that the RPT receives “$70,000-a-month stipend” from the RNC, there no reason why the Republican Party should not be building an infrastructure at the county levels where they can have control over the agenda and the message on immigration, especially to prevent more groups from “infiltrating” the Republican apparatus and tarnish the Party image in those Latino/Hispanic communities.

In the end, is all about Republicans taking the leadership from the top on immigration and “taking their party back” by consistently and unapologetically talking to voters about this issue. Yes this is a fight, but this is a fight that could have been prevented with leadership. Now that the fights is here, it can only be won if we address the issue, and not by avoiding it. What could have been an unnecessary fight over Immigration is now an open rebellion that the Republican Party has to fight within itself.

Alex Gonzalez  is a political Analyst and Political Director for Latinos Ready To Vote!  He received a Bachelors Degree and a Masters’ Degree, with emphasis in American politics,  from San Francisco State University.
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