Last word on immigration

Can GOP nominee soften angry rhetoric on immigration? Supreme Court ruling may make a 'reset' impossible.

Two months ago, we warned Republicans that a federal appeals court ruling that blocked President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration could be a nightmare scenario for the party's presidential nominee. This week, the Supreme Court got that particular ball rolling by choosing to take up the issue this year — raising the distinct possibility that Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz or whoever carries the party's banner will face a Hobson's choice of either taking the dreaded "soft on immigration" position or essentially rejecting the Latino vote this fall.

White House officials expressed confidence that the Supreme Court will come down on their side, and there are reasons to believe that's true. At the core of the debate are presidential actions in 2014 to protect certain immigrants from deportation and to provide them with work permits, and both would appear to fit with the sort of discretionary choices that administrations have taken in the past.

Essentially what Mr. Obama has tried to do is prioritize deportation hearings, and given the number of undocumented immigrants in this country — about 11 million — such triage has always been necessary. What distinguishes the president's approach is that he's attempted to set the nation on a more rational policy course, providing guidelines to immigration enforcement authorities not to deport millions who were brought into this country as children — and allowing those otherwise law-abiding individuals who have been here a significant amount of time to legally hold a job. The effect is not only to protect a group often referred to as the "dreamers" but to use finite resources of enforcement to go after convicted criminals and other undocumented individuals who pose a more serious threat to public safety.

Admittedly, Mr. Obama's executive actions on immigration were essentially a backstop and pursued only after it became clear the U.S. House of Representatives wasn't ready to embrace broader immigration reform. Republicans, who once showed signs of being open to a rational debate about immigration policy under President George W. Bush, have been reduced to claptrap about "self-deportation" and giant walls on the Mexican border. The rejection of Latino voters was regarded as a major problem for the party four years ago when nominee Mitt Romney received just 23 percent of the Latino vote, but apparently not anymore.

Even if the Supreme Court doesn't pull another Obamacare-style rescue and sides with Texas and the other Republican-governed states that sued the administration over the immigration actions, the ruling expected by this summer will still pose a problem for the party. The Democratic nominee can rightly point out that the GOP's anti-immigrant fervor is the primary roadblock to reaching some sort of rational policy. And no doubt he or she will be able to point to plenty of racist, hateful campaign rhetoric on the part of Republican candidates to back it up.

And while playing the "Donald Trump's greatest swipes at Latinos" album, the Democrats will also be able to point out a few facts — like how the U.S. illegal immigrant population isn't growing but is actually declining (from 12.2 million to 10.9 million, the lowest number since 2003, according to the Center for Migration Studies) and how U.S. enforcement efforts have never been harsher (just ask Central American women and children rounded up in the latest Obama administration raids in recent weeks, including here in Baltimore).

Here's another inconvenient fact for the GOP — the next president can deport and deport until the cows come home, but it won't change the reality that the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. The U.S. Census estimates that for Americans under the age of 18, non-Hispanic whites will be in the minority within four years. Hateful rhetoric directed at Mexicans or any other ethnic group is not going to win the day for any national party — not in 2016 and especially not in future elections.

Now, this immigration crash appears to be unavoidable. As the cantankerous Republican challengers continue to accuse each other of softness on the issue, it isn't just Latino voters who are likely to desert them. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer found that 72 percent of Americans believe undocumented immigrants who are here already should be allowed to stay — just as a majority support birthright citizenship and not changing the 14th Amendment. Tea partiers may feel differently, but in the general election, they will find themselves— if one can pardon the expression — in the minority.

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