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Immigration takes center stage

In calling for an immigration policy that includes a path to citizenship and expanded legal protections against deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton has presented her potential Republican rivals in 2016 with a stark choice: Either match her proposal and risk alienating conservative GOP voters in next year's primary races — or reject it and almost certainly lose the Hispanic vote by double-digit margins in the general election that follows.

Ms. Clinton defended her position Tuesday in Las Vegas, where she denounced the idea of deporting the 11 million people already in the country illegally as both physically impossible and morally indefensible. Many of those families, she pointed out, have lived in the U.S. for decades and have children who are American citizens. Even if it were possible to identify and locate all the families who entered the country illegally, deporting them would require separating millions of children who were born here from their parents, grandparents, siblings and relatives. She's right on all counts.

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So far, the response from most of the 2016 GOP presidential contenders has been silence. And no wonder: They all doubtless remember Mitt Romney's disastrous 2012 presidential campaign in which he urged "self-deportation" for undocumented immigrants — and drove Hispanic voters to support President Barack Obama's re-election by lop-sided margins. Republicans know that in order to win in 2016 they can't afford to simply write off Hispanics, who comprise the fastest growing sector of the electorate. But at the same time Republicans can't appeal directly to Hispanic voters on the single issue they care about most without infuriating the GOP's conservative base, which rejects any proposal granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants as a form of "amnesty" that rewards people for breaking the law.

It will be especially interesting to see how two of the leading GOP contenders, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, negotiate the conundrum Ms. Clinton has handed them. Of all the Republicans already in the race or expected to announce soon, they have had the most moderate track records on immigration despite their party's refusal to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in Congress and its insistence on "securing" the country's southern border before even considering the measure — a thinly veiled strategy to put off the issue indefinitely given that the border is already about as secure as it is ever likely to be.

Mr. Bush realizes that GOP intransigence on immigration has hurt the Republican brand among Hispanics and worries the damage could become permanent after a few more election cycles if the party continues to snub a potentially key constituency that could swing the outcome of national elections. Not only has he suggested that undocumented immigrants who have worked hard and stayed out of trouble deserve a chance to earn American citizenship, he's even gone so far as to say that in many ways the U.S. has actually benefited from their presence. Now that Ms. Clinton has raised the bar from simply legalizing their status to offering them a path to citizenship, however, Mr. Bush will have to decide whether the GOP primary voters he needs to win the nomination will tolerate his deviation from party orthodoxy.

Similarly, Mr. Rubio, who previously supported comprehensive immigration reform, has dialed back that position since announcing for president earlier this year. Now he says he still thinks the immigration system needs overhauling but that it can't be accomplished until the border is sealed. Mr. Rubio, a former protege of Mr. Bush, was once thought likely to appeal to Hispanic voters because of his family background as the son of Cuban immigrants. But now that he has retreated behind the party line of border control, he may lose that advantage.

The other Republicans in the race — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — have hardly uttered a peep on immigration since Ms. Clinton's remarks. When they do take a position, they'll find themselves between the rock and the hard place Ms. Clinton has boxed them into. It's great politics on her part; it will be even better if it leads to a saner policy on immigration under the next president and Congress.

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