Can Republicans do the expedient thing on immigration?

President Barack Obama renewed his call to Congress last week for passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would "grow the economy and shrink our deficits" as well as strengthen border security, modernize the visa system and offer a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. To show how serious he was about getting a bill he could sign, the president dropped his previous insistence that House lawmakers take up a bipartisan measure hammered out in the Senate over the summer and instead announced he would consider any new Republican proposals even if they addressed only some aspects of the nation's immigration policy rather than the whole system. "If House Republicans have new and different additional ideas on how we should move forward, then we want to hear them," he said. "I'll be listening."

In offering to compromise, Mr. Obama clearly was appealing to House GOP leaders to address immigration reform before Congress adjourns this year and the issue gets pushed back into the 2014 election-year cycle. If that happens, those leaders know, conservative Republican House members will feel under even greater pressure not to appear to willing to go along with anything the president proposes.

That's why establishment Republican figures and groups are urging House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to act quickly while there's still time to reach an agreement. The party's pragmatists are under no illusion that the GOP can survive as a national governing party if its position on immigration alienates the millions of Hispanic voters who comprise the country's fastest-growing minority.

The problem for establishment Republicans, however, is that their interests in the party's long-term governing future don't necessarily coincide with those of lawmakers from conservative districts across the country. House members whose districts have been rendered reliably red by gerrymandering don't have to worry about serious Democratic opposition, but they do fear the threat of a primary challenge from their right, especially in places where tea party conservatives are strong. Consequently, they have little interest in pushing immigration reform, an issue about which many of their constituents are deeply suspicious. At the same time they have a lot to gain by opposing it, regardless of what that means for the national party. For them, self-preservation (i.e. re-election) is their first priority; everything else is secondary.

That's one reason Mr. Boehner and other House Republicans have been so tepid in their response to the president's appeal. Openhanded as his offer might sound, there's not much in it for their caucus' members if the president ends up sticking with his demand that any immigration bill offer a path to citizenship for many if not most of the undocumented immigrants already living here. That's anathema to conservative House Republicans whose constituents view any process that allows undocumented immigrants to become citizens — even if it takes 13 years, doesn't include people who have committed crimes and requires applicants to pay a hefty fine — as a form of amnesty that rewards people for breaking the law.

No doubt that is why the Republican strategy has been to approach immigration policy in piecemeal fashion, supporting such things as more money for border security fences and surveillance drones while opposing measures like the Dream Act that would move the nation closer to accepting the fact that the undocumented immigrants who are already here aren't going anywhere because there's no way we are ever going to round up and deport 11 million people. But rather than admit that and deal with the reality the country is facing, it's easier for GOP House members to pretend the problem will go away if only the laws were tougher.

Republicans seem to think they can halt the long-term demographic change in the country by standing tough on immigration reform, but that's a fantasy: We're not going to get out of this dilemma except by bringing the millions of undocumented out of the shadows and, eventually, making a place for them as American citizens. President Obama knows that, which is why he is insisting any sane immigration policy must make provision for that. Republicans will figure that out soon enough as well — but perhaps not before their party has been reduced to the status of a permanent minority in national elections.

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